It was never my teenage ambition to be in a band. (I was more into choral singing). But What Girls Are Made Of, Cora Bissett’s autobiographical show about her teenage brush with superstardom as lead singer of the band Darlingheart, is relatable to anyone who’s ever flown too high and singed their wings. It manages to capture both the youthful excitement of chasing your dreams and a more mature voice of experience, aware of how little she knew at the time.
Although Bissett may be the lead singer in the story of her life, the show feels very collaborative. The cast take on multiple roles, instruments and musical styles. Grant O’Rourke’s performance of Cora’s Mum is a comedic highlight. Simon Donaldson does a great impression of Thom York. Susan Bear switches from drums to keyboard to guitar to vocals with virtuosic skill. And Cora Bissett delivers an honesty and directness in her performance that brings it all together. The band seems to be having a lot of fun and that fun is infectious, even if you can’t quite pogo in your seats in the steep rake of the Traverse.
Sometimes with gig theatre it can feel like the songs are only tangentially relevant, there to compensate for weak structure or paper over lack of plot. This is not the case with What Girls are Made Of; it feels substantial. The songs in What Girls Are Made Of are woven into the texture of the show and justified by plot. The performers are deft musical mimics and they create the soundscape of the 90s, from Darlingheart’s own songs to Radiohead. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s geometric set design centres the band formation and drips with cool. The performers even have colour-coordinated metallic water bottles.
Structurally, the show feels slightly unbalanced, with the bulk of the show focusing on the band’s 15 minutes of fame, then cramming in rest of Bissett’s life up to 40. ‘This is where the montage would be in a film’, Bissett comments wryly. Yet the last part of the show, in which Bissett tells us with unflinching honesty about caring for her dad with dementia and her miscarriages, provides the valuable perspective lacking from her teenage years. Crashing out of the band wasn’t the end of the world, though it might have seemed that way at the time. Cora the character remains grounded, her family and home, the making of her, always things she can return to. She dedicates the final song to her daughter, telling her ‘What Girls Are Made Of’. Not sugar and spice and all things nice, but ‘ganghuts, stilts and go-karts, mud pies, treeswings, and broken arms’, all the big little things that make up the unique texture of a life. Also the making of her: ‘All of the amazing women who have paved the way: Janis Joplin, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, Grace Jones, Kim Deal, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Liz Fraser, Bjork, Courtney Love, Beyonce, Janelle Monae, And Patti fuckin’ Smith’. And her mum. A blood c(h)ord stretching into the future.
What Girls Are Made Of is on at Traverse until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.