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FringeReview UK 2019

What Girls Are Made Of

Traverse Theatre Company and Raw Material

Genre: Biographical Drama, Contemporary, Live Music, Musical Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Soho Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Orl O’Loughlin (associate director Eve Nicol), designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, lit by Lizzie Powell with composer/sound designer Michael John McCarthy adding material around the core songs.


An indie-girl from Glenrothes Fife might dream, but actor/singer/writer Cora Bissett really managed an early career fronting a four-piece band and cut an album before NME trashed it and their unscrupulous discoverer and manager Dirk Divine screwed them over.


She tells her own story in What Girls Are Made Of, with Simon Donaldson (Cameron the lead guitar, her father and assorted Blur and Radiohead singers), drummer Emma Smith who plats occasional parts like Cora’s sister Moura, and Harry Ward who delights in everything from bass guitarist Campbell, various roadies and toadies from the record industry and the loud abusive Divine himself. The four perform in a gig-theatre set-up with punch panache, and in Bissett raw and tender power.


The narrative’s cleverly spliced and returns to the opening about how the egg chooses. Hold that thought to the end and find out for yourselves. Bisset though ensures it’s a family narrative and this is one of its great strengths, with a reach beyond the band story.


Bissett relates everything from childhood and how to counter bullying, characterising her quiet funny Irish father and her robust teacher mother, who’d once sung at her own wedding with a guitar (cue Smith with one) and tells her daughter to befriend the most luckless girl. Bissett’s lucky to have come from such an environment, she’s clear. It’s discovering a complete set of cuttings from her days of 1992-94 in the loft that triggers things.


Though destined for uni, she’s not convinced and finds the two guitarists, auditions, is instantly accepted, and brings her schoolmate as drummer, still revising for exams. They’re now the Darlinghearts. It’s the vertiginous way they’re scooped up into the industry with one of the biggest deals in Scottish music history: Bisset herself was just 17.


There’s clashes with school concerts and famously Smith’s character lurches out of a car driven by her father straight from a school concert, hitting the drums as she rushes in. Bissett burns through breathtaking highs, the intrusive shoot of Bissett (Donaldson as a German photographer) the frantic partying and supporting up-and-coming bands like Radiohead and Blur with their privileged voices (Donaldson uproarious).


There’s in-flight free drinks, binges, accidentally trashing a pre-set wedding reception and what are they dong wearing hats? But there’s also fake interviews discussing oral sex up blind alleys, which enrage her parents but seem penned by Divine.


The NME trashing, the silence, being landed with an HMRC tax bill, the way Bissett is force to choose another path and what the industry does with it is bad enough. There’s also though the post-band story, Bissett at drama school, on a London performing patch, being dumped for a famous rising actress; and her parents.


Her father’s fragility then dementia is both harrowing and touching, the rare connections made through some of Bissett’s favourite singers – P. J. Harvey, Patti Smith, and how her father recognizes… Dolly Parton. It’s a special moment – literally out of time – in a remarkable show. Her mother too relentlessly cheerful despite her own troubles pulls this narrative back to family, and Bissett’s desire to have a child at 40 when you’ve finally found someone.


And Divine? Jailed for doing a Weinstein on a helpless babysitter during the very period, 1992-4, he mismanaged the Darlinghearts. There’s some justice from 25 years on; and from what Bissett narrates closure elsewhere too.


Directed by Orl O’Loughlin it’s designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita as a band areas with a few effects like ticker-tape, lit smokily by Lizzie Powell with composer/sound designer Michael John McCarthy adding fine material around the core songs that’s loud but never overwhelms the overall lyricism.


Bissett in a Pixies T-shirt is superb. Her burnished soprano, her reach emotionally and her vertiginous range gradates from smoky to smouldering to intimate; she manages whispers crouched on the ground the way few can. She’s both the 16-year-old playing a hairbrush stadium and the woman over 25 years alter seeing her father fade out and something living fades in. The band too are first rate, the men with their characterizing and caricatures; Smith with exceptional drumming. And there’s a heart-stopping moment as that beat emulates Bissett’s heartbeat, then the offbeat of her daughter. The title, threaded throughout, is nailed in a litany of favourite things.


No doubt of it, Bissett’s overwritten her story, no-one else can unpick it. She’s set the bar thrillingly high for a new genre. Who could follow her?