Ivor Cutler: National treasure revisited

This exploration and celebration of Ivor Cutler’s work is the perfect vehicle to introduce a new generation to his songs and stories, says Susan Mansfield

Ivor Cutler made more Peel Sessions than almost any other musician, which garnered him a cult following
Ivor Cutler made more Peel Sessions than almost any other musician, which garnered him a cult following
Ivor Cutler made more Peel Sessions than almost any other musician, which garnered him a cult following

A SOUND technician at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre was clearing up after a gig when he heard a voice coming from the wings. “That’s it, I warned you this would happen, I said that if things didn’t improve we would be splitting up. Now, I’m leaving you.” Peering round the curtain, he found Ivor Cutler – song-writer, humorist, legend – talking to his harmonium.

As good as his word, Cutler left the harmonium at the Pavilion. It surfaced some time later in a props store in Glasgow where it was bought by Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw, who realised its provenance. Now, it is set to be back on stage in The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, a co-production between theatre company Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland, which explores and celebrates the man and his work.

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Actor Sandy Grierson has been brushing up his harmonium skills. Trying a few chords on the battered instrument, he admits it’s “wonderful” to be playing Cutler’s songs on his own harmonium. But the “triumvirate” behind the show, Grierson, Vanishing Point artistic director Matthew Lenton and music director Jim Fortune, admit that making a piece of theatre about this eccentric, bittersweet, contradictory figure is anything but straightforward.

Cutler, who died in 2006, is a difficult man to categorise. A Scot who lived almost all his adult life outside Scotland, yet, as Billy Connolly said, “captures dreich… like no one on earth”. A musician who hated loud noise. A comedian who suffered from depression. A little man in plus fours and a fez who was signed to all the UK’s major record labels, and whose fans included the Beatles, Robert Wyatt and John Peel.

“He’s a hard man to make sense of, that’s what’s great about it,” says Greirson, who did much of the background research for the show, collating Cutler’s prolific writings and interviewing his collaborators, including his partner of 40 years, Phyllis King. Meanwhile, Fortune, an acclaimed musician, composer and arranger, was working through his back catalogue, and collecting Cutler stories from sound engineers.

“He left a memorable impression on every venue in the south of England,” Fortune says. “He called up one venue to ask that his dressing room not be touched in any way by cleaning products (he was sensitive to strong smells). When he arrived, it had been cleaned with bleach and he kicked off. Then he asked to be paid in cash, took out white rubber-fingered counting gloves and insisted on absolute silence while he counted the money in front of everyone.”

Lenton, pictured, who says he has had an Ivor Cutler show at the back of his mind since 2007, loved the genuineness of Cutler’s eccentricity. “You can imagine people who aspire to being a little bit mad taking their white gloves out, but he didn’t see it as being anything other than what he was. He was an outsider, a rebel – the most unassuming-looking rebel, he’s hardly James Dean, but he’s probably more of a rebel than James Dean because he didn’t do things the way anyone thought you should do them. There is something of the courage of a visionary, the true artist about him.”

Cutler was born in Glasgow in 1923 to a Jewish family of East European descent, and mythologised his upbringing in one of his best known works, Life in a Scotch Sitting Room. During the Second World War, he was briefly a navigator in the RAF before being (in his own words) “dismissed for dreaminess”. He moved to London after the war, where he worked as a teacher for over 30 years, getting his first break as a performer in his thirties. In later life he gained a cult following thanks to the support of John Peel, for whom he made more Peel Sessions than almost any other musician.

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Lenton says The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler (which takes its title from one of his songs) is “a kind of biography, a kind of celebration, and also a gig. One of the things we knew from the very beginning was we did not want Sandy simply to do an impersonation of Ivor Cutler. It’s not a tribute show. There’s an interplay between Sandy and Ivor in the show, it has a glint in its eye and a wink at the audience, it doesn’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.”

While some of Cutler’s songs will be played in his signature style, others will be reinterpreted by the on-stage band, which includes multi-instrumentalist Nick Pynn and percussionist Magnus Mehta. “It’s a bit of a wonky band,” says Fortune. “I think if you’re going to do an Ivor Cutler show, you’ve got to avoid having two guitars, bass and drums. Ivor’s songs stand up to treatment and are worth investigation. There’s one tune that we’re doing which has turned into, like, a murder ballad by Nick Cave via Johnny Cash.”

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Lenton hopes the show will introduce Cutler to a new generation of fans. “The thing I’ll be proudest of, if we can do it, is that younger people come and hear the songs and realise they are great songs. His songs, stories and poems will speak for themselves in the show. I hope that people who don’t know Ivor will come and discover a bit about him, this amazing treasure who hasn’t been celebrated enough.”

• The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler is at the Citizens Theatre from 9 April, then on tour, with previews at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 4 and 5 April, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com