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What Girls Are Made Of review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘Euphoric autobiographical gig theatre’

Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Sid Scott

Back in the 1990s, when she was 17, Scottish theatre mainstay Cora Bissett was in an indie band called Darlingheart. They were signed by a major label, supported Radiohead (back when they were still a group of posh boys from Abingdon) and toured with Blur. There was a buzz around them and their music. But their manager screwed them over, their album tanked and the industry spat them out.

Bissett has now fashioned her teenage experiences into a piece of autobiographical gig theatre in which she’s the lead singer in the story of her own life. It could have been an exercise in theatrical navel-gazing, but she’s too gifted a storyteller for that. She’s crafted a euphoric exploration of the compromises and losses inherent in growing older – coupled with covers of Nirvana and Patti Smith.

Orla O’Loughlin’s production is set up like a gig. Bissett, in black T-shirt, as frontwoman, is backed up by Susan Bear, Simon Donaldson and Grant O’Rourke. They play all the instruments and all the characters: from her Darlingheart bandmates to music-industry players with Scalextric sets in their office, to the band’s super-sketchy manager.

The writing is stuffed full of recollections of the indie scene, the venues, the vibe, the glory of the Astoria, the devastating power of a bad review in the NME. Bissett evokes the dizzying unreality of being a Scottish teenager who suddenly ends up hanging out with Damon Albarn, forced into provocative poses by magazine photographers and being scandalously misquoted in GQ.

She also captures the intense boredom of being in a band, hanging around in smelly dressing rooms and eating endless pre-gig chippy suppers.

Entertaining as all this is, the show ascends to another level in its later stages as Bissett’s hopes are dashed, in ways small and large. She ends up busking in Tooting as a series of relationships go nowhere. She captures with unsparing accuracy the sensation of watching other women start families when, for circumstances beyond your control, this is not your story, while also nailing what it feels like to watch a parent diminished by dementia.

Despite the deeply personal nature of much of the material, Bissett’s warmth as a performer and the unifying power of the music make it universal. This is a show about dreams and how they change as we age, about coming to terms with the frailty of our parents, about wanting to make art as a woman and all the things it can cost you.

If you were into the indie scene in the 1990s, if you ever dreamed of making it big as an artist, if you have a beating heart in your chest, there’s a high chance it will make you weep.

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Euphoric and deeply moving autobiographical gig theatre from Cora Bissett