Soho Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
The boilerplate review of Cora Bissett’s legacy gig-cum-memoir, goes something like this: What Girls Are Made of is a heartfelt and pathos-strewn reminiscence from actor and performer Cora Bissett – one time lead singer of Scottish indie band, Darlingheart. With the aid of her teenage diaries and a trio of versatile actors/musicians (Acticians/Musicators), she re-creates the defunct band and their highs and lows, grounding the story of rags to riches to rags with broad comic, and sometimes touching re-creations of the colourful gaggle of characters that litter the story – from the garrulous, bawdy manager who ripped off the band, to the pompous English record company execs who dropped them when their debut album failed to break through. The show’s an intoxicating mix of memory, music and reflection.
The above isn’t wrong but it’s possible it doesn’t tell the full story of this show. After Bissett’s brush with fame she became an actress, and one has to say that she’s great as herself – heightened, incarnate; slipping eloquently between time periods and confidence levels, and polished to perfection when reborn as singer – front and centre. You can’t fault Bissett’s stage presence or the skill of the supporting players here; the talent and earthy indie sound that led to a £90k record deal is very much in evidence. Darlingheart, you feel, could and should have been contenders.
What’s interesting, from the perspective of Bissett’s middle-age and a quarter century of hindsight, is the degree to which the show inadvertently turns her into the very thing the NME mean-spiritedly dismissed her as, a commodified fake.
Hers is an engaging story, framed – in truth or hope, as one of naivety, overreach and reinvention. But it’s also a tale told from a single perspective; personal history and understanding repurposed as theatre. What, one wonders, does Bissett’s former bandmates make of the show? There’s no attribution of blame or feeling in this account, bar the disdain leveled at the manager who used blank cheques, signed by Bissett, to clean out the band’s account.
She’s clear that she took the record company’s offer to go solo and drop her bandmates, only to be dropped herself when they didn’t go for her new sound. But at this point Darlingheart’s former members disappear from the story (“I didn’t talk to Cameron again for 25 years”) and their views on everything from the music to the split, are lost.
Still, this is a show interested in what girls are made of – a formula that supposes that everyone we meet, everything we experience, shapes our character; true enough one would think, though it denies and extinguishes the reciprocity that underpins that deal – the impact we have on others and their lives.
Is Bissett’s background and subsequent experience as interesting as her brush with the early ‘90’s music scene? No. It’s an accretion of provincial stuff seen through a parochial lens. You half expect a scene reminiscing about Creamola Foam and Irn-Bru. Essential world-building perhaps, but ultimately, when coupled with domestic trials and tribulations, a curious celebration of conformity and mediocrity in a show about a rock and roll spirit that was prematurely snuffed out.
Watching the show, I thought of a lyric from Radiohead’s “Anyone Can Play Guitar” – destiny, destiny protect me from the world. If destiny won’t, repackaging the world in a theatre with the complications and contentious bits removed, isn’t a bad compromise.