Monday, 14 April 2014

Vanishing Point - The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler

The squall of feedback that pierces across the auditorium of Eden Court Theatre 
in Inverness may only last a few seconds, but, it’s enough to cause a brief 
commotion among anyone in the room. The cast and band are in the thick of 
rehearsals for The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, Vanishing Point theatre 
company’s impressionistic music homage to the Glasgow-born poet, singer and 
stalwart of the late John Peel’s radio programme, which - quite literally - 
speaks volumes.

Cutler was, after all, a member of the Noise Abatement Society, and claimed to 
loathe amplified music in all forms. The feedback is a consequence of a 
late-running sound-check caused by a piano’s exterior splintering in a way that 
rendered it unusable. A replacement piano found at short notice, a piano tuner 
was also required to before work could proceed.

The band is led my musical director James Fortune, and includes 
multi-instrumentalist and recipient of a Herald Little Devil award Nick Pynn. 
Pynn, who has worked with comedians Stewart Lee and Boothby Graffoe, won the 
award with his partner, Kate Daisy Grant, after the pair got married on their 
only day off from their Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. With keyboardist and 
vocalist Jo Apps, guitarist Ed Gaughan and percussionist Magnus Mehta also on 
board, Fortune has pulled together a dynamic and eclectic ensemble.

For me,” says Fortune, “the challenges are to investigate the songs enough so 
you can rework them, but still keep their original spirit intact. A lot of Ivor 
Cutler’s songs sound like they could have been sung by Paul Robeson. There’s 
cowboy music in there, and there’s something Jewish there as well.”

As well as the piano, the stage is awash with other musical instruments, with a 
couple of old-fashioned armchairs nestled in front of the piano in a way that 
suggests the Scotch sitting room immortalised in Cutler’s brutally absurd 
stories. Elicia Daly, who plays a version of Cutler’s partner, Phyllis King, 
sits obliviously knitting on one of the chairs, leaning up against the piano are 
a series of oversize reproductions of the sleeves for each of Cutler’s albums.
At the front of the stage, set apart from everything else, sits a harmonium. In 
it’s isolated state, this wooden monster of an instrument looks like a miniature 
altar. The fact that the harmonium once belonged to Ivor Cutler himself makes 
the presence of the man interviewers were instructed must be called Mr Cutler 
even more tangible.

The instrument was re-discovered by musician and Celtic Connections director 
Donald Shaw. It had lain in storage for years after Cutler had apparently 
abandoned it following a show in Glasgow, where he was overheard in the wings 
giving the instrument a stiff talking to. Shaw bought it, and has now lent it to 
Vanishing Point. While this anecdote in itself could form the basis of a Cutler 
tribute, it’s a long way from how Lenton originally envisaged the show.

It’s a biography, a celebration and a gig,” he says of how it’s turned out. 
What we didn’t want was just have someone imitating Ivor Cutler and what he 
did. You can get the real thing on YouTube, so there’s no point on that. We 
wanted to do something that told a story, but which said something about Ivor 
Cutler’s life.

I’ve always said it’s an anti Mamma Mia. When you look at Mamma Mia, it’s the 
work of ABBA structured together, but ABBA don’t play a part in that musical, so 
anyone could have written those songs. That was my first idea with this, to make 
it something completely separate from Ivor Cutler’s life, but the more work we 
did on it, the more we found that you can’t separate Cutler’s work from his 
life.”

Rather than make a Vanishing Point approximation of a jukebox musical, Lenton, 
along with Fortune and actor and company associate Sandy Grierson, have done 
something more akin to the rock and roll biographical shows Elvis and Buddy. 
This has been done using a mountain of research material pulled together by 
Grierson, and enabled with the help of Cutler’s son and King, who have allowed 
Vanishing Point unlimited access to their archives. Despite such exhaustive 
researches, Lenton isn’t aiming to creative something rarefied.

It’s got to be a story that people who don’t know anything about Ivor Cutler 
can come along,” he maintains, “as well as one that aficionados can enjoy. On 
one level it’s quite a simple story, although it’s never a naturalistic 
portrayal of Ivor Cutler. It’s a biography told through his songs, and it’s a 
celebration, but it’s not just fragments. There’s an aesthetic to Cutler, and 
there’s something really Russian in his radio plays, and that’s the essence we 
want to capture.”

With the piano tuned, the band warm up as Grierson walks the stage with a giant 
cut-out of a vivid green sea creature. Costume designer Jessica Brettle comes in 
carrying two tweedy tartan caps that wouldn’t look out of place on a 
well-dressed Womble. They are, of course, dead ringers for Cutler’s own 
head-wear, and Grierson dutifully tries them on for size.

The band run through a version of Cutler’s late song, A Bubble Or Two, which, by 
way of an alternating male/female vocal and a twanging guitar, becomes 
transformed into the sort of galloping wild west melodrama on which Lee 
Hazlewood might have duetted with Nancy Sinatra. 

It’s louder than Cutler’s original, but there’s a reinvigorated joy there that 
even a member of the Noise Abatement Society might tap a toe to.

I think he’d be alright with that,” says Fortune, “but you have to be careful 
to get the balance right.”

The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, April 9-20, then 
tours.
www.citz.co.uk
www.vanishing-point.org

The Herald, April 8th 2014

ends



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