What Girls Are Made Of review

Theatre
4 out of 5 stars
What Girls Are Made Of / Raw Material & Traverse Theatre Company Melbourne Festival 2019 supplied
Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This hit Scottish show tells of a young woman’s real-life journey through the early ‘90s music scene

When Cora Bissett was a teenager, she dreamed of singing her way through life. Unlike most of us, her dream started to come true. After responding to an ad in the local paper – “lead singer wanted” – the Patti Smith-loving teenager found herself fronting Darlingheart, an early ‘90s Scottish band that would go on to have a few minor hits and tour with Blur and Radiohead.

But the dream wasn’t entirely what she’d hoped for, and she found herself having to deal with dodgy record industry figures who sexualised her at a young age, put her under enormous pressure, and eventually showed her exactly how disposable she was in their eyes.

Luckily for Melbourne Festival audiences, Bissett pulled the pieces of her life back together after they spectacularly fell apart. Twenty-five years after the band broke up, she created a show that tells its story in a funny and lighthearted way and gently reveals how those hard-learned lessons shaped her into the woman and mother she is today.

Bissett is an enormously endearing performer, whose theatre career has taken off in recent years in her homeland of Scotland. In this show, she’s backed by a band of three (Emma Smith, Harry Ward and Simon Donaldson), who play her former bandmates, schoolmates, family members and the manager who royally screwed Bissett over. These are mostly very funny cameos, directed sensitively by Orla O'Loughlin. 

Bissett tracks her life in a monologue, but she makes her past feel absolutely immediate. She digs into her own torment and heartbreak – particularly over her father’s gradual decline and her own journey to motherhood – so generously that many audience members were in tears at the performance we saw.

The only shame is that there isn’t more space to hear Bissett rip into a song. She’s a wonderful singer – a touch of the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan mixed with her many inspirations – but we only hear a few bits of her doing Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘Dress’. The band plays throughout, but the music is mostly integrated into the storytelling as an underscore.

Otherwise, this is a deeply moving and sometimes sentimental show in which Bissett tells her story in a straightforward and honest fashion. It’s a tale that goes down all sorts of unexpected and disparate tracks, and it’s not until the final moments that Bissett really starts reflecting on the effect those early experiences have had across her entire life. The final song, in which she tries to answer a difficult question from her newborn daughter, is a rip-roaring reclamation of life from a woman whose ultimate triumph is extraordinarily inspiring.

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