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A life rejoicing in words and song

How to dramatise the splendidly assorted life and work of Ivor Cutler?

Sandy Grierson captures the character of Ivor Cutler Photograph: Tim Morozzo
Sandy Grierson captures the character of Ivor Cutler Photograph: Tim Morozzo

The Scottish Jewish iconoclast - who died in 2006 and defined himself at various times as "humorist", "poet", "oblique musical philosopher" and "child" - is about as easy to pin down as a hyperactive frog.

Yet giving some kind of theatrical shape to his biography and oeuvre is the task of The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler, the new co-production by Vanishing Point theatre company and the National Theatre of Scotland. Appropriately, given the miscellaneous idiosyncrasies of their subject, the show's creators (actor/writer Sandy Grierson, composer/musician James Fortune and director Matt Lenton) have created a work which flits mercurially between diverse elements.

Re-enacted conversations between Grierson and Phyllis King (the poet's widow and artistic collaborator, played by Elicia Daly) give way to splendid reinterpretations of Cutler's gloriously absurdist songs. Bitter and hilarious snippets of biography (the young Cutler's torment at the hands of a sadistic Glaswegian teacher; his own humane and unorthodox methods as a primary school teacher) sit alongside readings from his surreal, vividly imagined poetry and prose.

The fact that this artistic hodgepodge comes together as a splendid and charming tribute rests on the piece's ability to capture something of the essence of Cutler.

Fortune's musical arrangements are intelligent, wonderfully enjoyable extrapolations from Cutler's own music. The rendering of his song Rubber Toy (originally written for a single piano) as a piece for a full Ashkenazi Jewish band is tremendous, both as music and biography.

Then there's Grierson's playing of Cutler. A tall, physically elegant actor, Grierson is about as different in appearance from the somewhat shambling Cutler as it is possible to be. However, in his combination of lugubriousness, vulnerability, humanity and childish playfulness, the actor captures something quite profound in the poet's character.

As it ends - with a poignantly funny, cleverly imagined encounter between the poet and the God he didn't believe in - one feels that one has had a very meaningful, delightfully pleasurable peek into Ivor Cutler's beautiful cosmos.

If there is some pathos in the Cutler show, there is a lorry load of the stuff in Jamaican writer Amba Chevannes's little two-hander The Last Bloom. It is testament to uber-producer David MacLennan that his A Play, A Pie And A Pint series should bring a Caribbean play to the Scottish lunchtime stage.

Set in an insalubrious Jamaican old folks' home, the play traces the strained relations between new resident Cynthia and her reluctant roommate, Myrtle. At once a light comedy of personal conflict and a heartfelt reflection on childlessness, loneliness and dependency, the drama seems at times like a cross between a standard TV sitcom and a play by Samuel Beckett.

Acted splendidly by Anni Domingo and Cleo Sylvestre, Chevannes's drama knows how to wrap pity inside contempt. But although it is very funny at times (not least in Sylvestre's comic cantankerousness), subtlety is not the play's strongest suit. Cynthia and Myrtle resolve their differences in a conclusion which is as obvious as it is sentimental.

Find tour details for The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler at nationaltheatrescotland.com

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