The multi-talented Cora Bissett returns to Fringe 2023, with her autobiographical 2018/19 international hit ‘WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF’. A most singular fusion of gig theatre and memoir, the play follows Cora’s progress from teenage cultural oddity in deepest Fife, through a burgeoning career as lead singer of the industry-fancied Darlingheart, and the the seedy, wonderful world of the 90’s music industry.
Being a band-centric play, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita provides Cora, and her band, with a stage fit for a gig, all speakers and monumental neon framing. Joining her on stage are returning cast-mates, Simon Donaldson, and Harry Ward, exhibiting a fine hand with lead guitar, and bass respectively. These two morph into the majority of the personae dramatis with practiced ease, and swift characterisation. These are figments conjured from Bissett’s mind, so they are just a little larger than life, their personalities worn on their sleeves. Donaldson and Ward dial nothing, offering nothing less than stellar supporting turns.
In the percussive engine room, Cathryn Archer, another Darlingheart alumnus takes the drums, having guested in a handful of stagings in previous years. Aside from being a first rate drummer, it does add just a touch of je ne said quoi, to have 50% of the band live and in action.
Music isn’t a theoretical muse in ‘WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF’, but the beating heart of the show. There’s no lazy jumping from one crowd-pleasing 90’s hit to another here, nor a deep dive into Darlingheart’s own discography beyond the demands of the play. Instead it’s a tool to evoke a world now 30 years gone, and the soundtrack of Bissett and her friends and family’s lives. Cora’s personal hero Patti Smith looms large in both score and philosophy, but the fabulous four, fronted by a very vocally capable Bissett prove a dab hand with everything from PJ Harvey to Blur.
In fact their cover of ‘This Is A Low’ is easily superior to the band’s own, pulling out the harmonies and weight of the tune, and stripping out the whiney aspect of the original. Bravo to Sound Designer Garry Boyle, everything sounds great. The Assembly Rooms literally vibrates when drums and bass let loose. It’s just what a music lover wants, and superior in sound quality to the majority of big value, touring musical theatre.
However this is Bissett’s show, and she plays a masterful tour guide to the life recorded in her diaries. Orla O’ Loughlin must share the credit in what is a pacey, vibrant experience, which never lets the grass grow, until its time to slow it down, and make some heavy points. The waters of 90’s music might have teemed with talent, but where there’s prey, there are always predators.
Channeling the energy of her teenaged self, Bissett demands every eye and ear, her story charged with triumph, and shaded with disaster, and a dusting of tragedy. There’s no call for pity, just an unquenchable urge to share a burning, formative period in a creative life. This is the perspective only available with a little distance from the ultimate failure of that dream, a viewpoint from which glories can be sifted like gold in a Klondike river. And boy do they shine.
Villains and personal naivety are conjured with unflinching detail, but so is the joy of bringing roomfulls of paying fans to ecstasty. The rampant sexualisation, and exploitation of young women in an almost lawless world is ever present, but there’s still the joy of shared adventure, of success, and of mixing with other fascinating, creative artists.
Bissett is answering the show’s challenge ‘WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF’ by asking herself what she is made of. This show is her answer. She is everything that has made her who she is now. She is her mother and father’s daughter, she is the things she has done, and the people she has known, loved (and hated). She is now a mother herself, though that seemed another dream destined for failure. She is the acknoweldgement of her failures and triumphs, and a shakeable, but ultimately unquenchable drive to keep going, and to keep creating. She is her dreams, whatever they are; and so are all girls.
This is Bissett’s polyphonic, multi-hued testament to a remarkable time in her life, and it’s a damn good time in theatre.
WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF is A Raw Material / Traverse co-production