Brighton Festival 2015
This touching, whimsical musical fable on the life of one of Scotland’s most influential and treasured entertainers will leave you with a warm glow in your heart. A mixture of radio show, band performance and play, it is a very slick production.
The show opened with the voice of God, sounding worryingly like David Cameron, discussing Ivor Cutler, and moved on to a meta set-up, in which actor Sandy Grierson visits Ivor Cutler’s widowed girlfriend, Phyllis King (Elisa Daly), in order to gain some insight to aid him in playing the role.
Phyllis then becomes the central hook, the narrator, for the rest of the show, around which Grierson’s Cutler flutters like a creative moth around her stabilizing warm lightbulb of a personality. Both characters regularly broke the fourth wall with confidence, enhancing the performance by bringing the audience closer in.
The sparse set was impressive, facilitating scene changes well, and there were sections depicting various stages of Cutler’s life, from his schooldays (which perhaps dwelt on the punishments he endured at the hand of his schoolmasters a little too long) to when he trained as a RAF navigator in Canada (depicted as a wonderful fantasy sequence).
This was all interspersed with flights of fancy taken from his vast catalogue of music and poetry, all delivered with his trademark mock dour Scottish humour.
Cutler comes across as a Scottish Spike Milligan with nonsense poems and ludicrous songs like “pickle your knees” which acted as a clever montage to whizz through a couple of years. We learned more about the man and his problems such as high sensitivity to noise and general awkwardness, which endeared the character to us even more. Grierson inhabits Cutler completely and masterfully.
The band, which included talented multi-instrumentalist, Nick Pynn, were excellent, not only accompanying the songs but playing an integral part of the play, inhabiting roles and interacting with the two main actors. The sheer range of music from Yiddish tunes, calypso and music hall elements to Cutler’s better known surrealist Gaelic folk was impressive and well executed, and particularly memorable was their Nick Cave- style parody of an Ivor song.
Inevitably, when telling the life story of someone who is dead the ending is going to be a tad down beat, but the warmth and affection generated offset any potentially maudlin emotions.
To be perfectly frank, while one of us had a good knowledge of Cutler’s work, the other knew absolutely nothing about him, yet we both came away lighter in the soul having experienced the show, for which there can be no greater testament. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of his work or not, there’s something for everyone here, and you get the feeling it’s the sort of show Cutler himself would have approved of: modest, self-effacing and honest.