Published in the Guardian Vanishing Point on tour Four stars
IF THERE was ever an unlikely candidate for a tribute musical it's Ivor Cutler. An acquired taste even in his lifetime, the self-styled "oblique musical philosopher" existed in a hinterland between late-night John Peel, homespun poetry and post-Goons comedy. Seeing him on stage in the 80s, I was always fascinated by a figure who seemed to have invented himself, a performer with neither precedent nor peer.
One of the best things about this marvellous production by Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland is how it provides the missing context. It's partly the way Sandy Grierson tells Cutler's life story, breaking off for poems, stories and songs en route. He takes us from bullied Glasgow schoolboy to hapless RAF pilot, unfashionably liberal schoolteacher and, after a move to London, his role as Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. In itself, the narrative is unremarkable – certainly less remarkable than the man himself – but it functions as a convenient structure on which to hang his work.
More particularly, the context is fleshed out by James Fortune's live band, which explores the musical pedigree of Cutler's harmonium, drawing out its roots in Scottish lament, Jewish klezmer, calypso and modern jazz. It shows the work to be even richer than you appreciated, even if, like Grierson's performance, the music rises to a level of exuberance that is out of step with the poet's minimalist persona.
This is no Stars in Their Eyes pastiche and yet Grierson captures perfectly Cutler's emphatic cadences, precise enunciation and tone, which was too dry to be droll and too funny to be petulant. Playing opposite a gorgeously contained Elicia Daly as girlfriend Phyllis King, he shows Cutler as an artist straddling the unsettling boundary between the violent and the whimsical, the existential and the surreal. It is the tribute of a true devotee.
Fittingly, director Matthew Lenton prizes the aural as highly as the visual, switching from the radio techniques of the foley artist to Kai Fischer's striking lighting designs as quickly as he moves from spoken word to rock. The production is rich in quirky metatheatrical detail, not least in a series of cameo caricatures by actor-musician Ed Gaughan, which are tempered only a little by the story of Cutler's dementia prior to his death in 2006. Poignancy aside, the result is a big grin of a show, as funny and idiosyncratic as Cutler and every bit as embraceable.