“They are made of sugar and spice,
And other things, not ALL nice”
Last year, Cora Bissett started going through her collection of old diaries, and the end result was What Girls Are Made Of: a gig theatre piece charting her teenage years spent as an indie rock star, and the knock-on effects that experience has had on her life. It first ran at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before embarking on a world tour which included a return to the Traverse – and now a stint at London’s Soho Theatre. Next month it heads out to Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Caught up in a wave of Patti Smith adulation and fresh from school, Cora knew one thing: she wanted to be in a band. Growing up in Glenrothes in Fife wasn’t going to stop her, and she soon finds herself as the singer of Darlingheart – the band makes a “gentlemen’s agreement” with manager Dirk Devine, start work on their album, and find themselves on the support bill for the up-and-coming bands of the day (such as Radiohead and Blur). All seems to be going well, until the NME gives a scathing verdict on Darlingheart’s debut LP; Dirk no longer seems to be their cheerleader, and the company goes quiet on them – but little do they know that things are about to get a lot worse…
For much of the show, Cora directly addresses the audience and acts as a narrator, drawing on the detail from her diaries. In between this she dips in and out of scenes with her fellow performers (Simon Donaldson, Emma Smith and Harry Ward), who play all manner of characters – from Cora’s parents and her teenage friends, to members of the bands referenced in the play and Darlingheart themselves. Having live music as the backdrop for many scenes (as well as erupting into full-blown performances of certain numbers) nods to Cora’s band days and ambitions of being a singer, as well as creating a dynamic atmosphere that keeps the show on full power.
But it’s not just about the rock & roll. The death of Bissett’s father prompted her trip down memory lane which eventually led to her writing the play; her relationship with him plays a significant part, as does her realisation that she’d like a family of her own. The emotional depth that these moments bring balances beautifully with the excitement and drama of the Darlingheart days.
It’s fittingly loud (sound design and compositions from Michael John McCarthy), and visually very bold – Lizzie Powell’s lighting design is perfectly attuned to Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design, creating the music gig environment and allowing the script to do the talking. When you have a born storyteller like Bissett at the helm, and terrific support from her fellow performers (Simon Donaldson’s Thom Yorke, Graham Coxon & Damon Albarn are particularly memorable) you really don’t need anything else.
My verdict? Loud, bold & full of heart, the show is full of dynamic performances – a true testament to the power of music & storytelling.
What Girls Are Made Of runs at Soho Theatre until 28 September 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.