Vanishing Point’s metaphysical theatre production with the National Theatre of Scotland is a paean to the cult hero, Ivor Cutler. Born in 1923 in Ibrox to an Eastern European family of Jewish descent, Cutler was a misfit among the misfits. Welding the prosaic with the whimsical, his absurdism was rooted in the eccentricity of his own nature. He was a contrarian, a poet/musician who was a member of the Noise Abatement Society, who hated loud applause, yet frequently appeared on John Peel’s night-time Radio 1 shows in the eighties and nineties, and latterly signed with Creation Records.
Unlike overrated right-wing royalist Spike Milligan, Cutler was not motivated by money, living simply in a small flat in London, and there are traces of his ouevre today within the scabrous idiot savant doodllings of David Shrigley, or the nascent stage shows of Vic and Bob and The Mighty Boosh. Yet he remains an original. Despite their shared silliness, none of Cutler’s self-appointed dauphins possess his characteristic stillness.
This is a highly kinetic performance, overseen by his partner Phyllis April King (wonderfully portrayed by Elicia Daly) who appears in postmodern mode talking to the actor playing the lead, Sandy Grierson, about how to best approach representing such a beloved figure. Grierson is excellent, perfectly capturing the lugubrious disposition of Cutler, although the full band (who are a wonderful quintet) dilute his low-key essence. The foray into ‘Showbiz Cutler’, leaping around to a ballsy klezmer version of Rubber Toy or joining a conga line to Yellow Fly, sat uncomfortably with me—mainstream, he was not.
Some typically Cutler approaches work beautifully: talking to God about the concept of Hell being preferable to Heaven (he was a Humanist); complaining that the lighting ”isn’t miserable enough”, the Morse code chorus of Little Black Buzzer, an almost sexually sadistic schoolmaster of the (old) school and the ”syncopated hiccups” of an iconoclastic Loch Lomond. However the first part of Beautiful Cosmos generally feels overwrought, and a little mannered.
When the second half kicks in things settle down, and a more melancholic, apposite show emerges. The zoo sequence has the visual whimsy I had hoped for, complete with fluorescent animal cut-outs. Backdrops by Kai Fischer are beautiful and eerie, such as the masked family judging him as he is punished as a child. Recrimination is a recurring motif in Cutler’s back catalogue, and was dealt with well here.
The duet Squeeze Bees, as delicate and fragile as lace, in which King sings ”give me a man with grey hair and grey eyes” has real poignancy. The original’s playfulness is acknowledged, but in this new theatrical context it becomes an affecting testament to their relationship. The emotion builds from here till the denouement: and it is a hard heart which couldn’t be melted by Grierson’s lonely depiction of Cutler in old age, a bewildered whisper of his former self.
Beautiful Cosmos is flawed. But it’s occasionally touched with magic. The show is a sweet tribute to a much-missed ”oblique philosopher” who left a Cutler-sized hole following his death in 2006—and whom I suspect would be entirely mortified by the National Theatre of Scotland basing a whole show about him. Which is precisely his appeal.