Cora Bissett was once a teenage rocker, lead singer at seventeen in a band called Darlingheart, the pride of Fife. She’s reminded of this, and reminds us, while cradling a box she found while clearing out her parents’ loft after her dad’s death from dementia. She’s wearing a Pixies TV shirt.
That’s the premise of this play with music, What Girls Are Made Of. It is a familiar story in many ways: Bissett discovers the music and image of Patti Smith and wants nothing more than to be like her, answering a local newspaper call to join a band with two older chaps, Clark and Cameron, and with a younger schoolmate, Cathryn, on drums.
Darlingheart are edgy, hungry and naive. With a dodgy record deal involving multiple blank cheques, a succession of support gigs (Sultans of Ping FC, Radiohead, Blur), a lot of alcohol, and a sleazy manager, Cora and her cohorts are living the dream until the NME decide otherwise and give their album a damning review.
In parallel with Darlingheart’s rise and fall, we hear about Cora’s parents: her gentle dad from the Irish countryside with his huge hands, eventually lost to dementia; her strong Scots mum like a “Shetland pony facing the wind”, pragmatic even in the face of MS in middle age.
This mix of the professional, the personal, and the parodies of industry insiders and rock icons makes this show something special. Bissett herself is centre stage as writer, performer, and muse, showcasing a powerful singing voice and a dreamy, lyrical way with words, but her band of actor-musicians (Emma Smith, Harry Ward, Simon Donaldson) add colour with all the other characters.
Ultimately, this is less about Cora the teenage rocker than Cora growing into the woman she is today; informed by the diaries she kept in great detail year on year, supported by the dream that still allows her to rock out, Smith-like, before her audience, but wiser and reflective, a settled, creative, mother.
There will be aspects of What Girls Are Made Of which speak to every woman: whether following a dream, dealing with a bully, standing up for your rights (an anecdote about some icky publicity photos is prescient in the #MeToo era), facing up to a bad decision (I’d have liked to hear more about why Cora and Cameron didn’t speak for 25 years), watching your parents succumb to weakness, and finding yout own contentment.
What Girls Are Made Of continues at the Soho Theatre until 28 September 2019. You can book tickets at https://sohotheatre.com/shows/what-girls-are-made-of. If you want to read about Darlingheart at their peak, visit https://archive.list.co.uk/the-list/1993-05-21/10.
Photo credits Mihaela Bodlovic. The show is directed by Orla O’Loughlin. My thanks to Chloe Nelkin for the ticket.