What Girls Are Made Of (Soho Theatre)

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.

Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of
Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of

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.

Simon Donaldson and Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of
Simon Donaldson and Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of

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.

Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of
Cora Bissett in What Girls Are Made Of

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.

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The Colours (Soho Theatre Upstairs)

Harriet Madeley and Max Barton have crafted an unmissable piece of verbatim theatre at the Soho Upstairs in The Colours – the latest production from Crowded Room – where the actors relay words from the interview snippets they hear on the headphones to us, the audience.

The stage is a blue rectangle, with metal containers and microphones at its extremes. A bucket hangs with ladders at each side. The actors step up to the microphones and the soundscape is created – the sound of the sea, a flying gull.

Morfydd Clark in The Colours
Morfydd Clark in The Colours

The characters are those receiving care in an end of life unit (Ty Olwen) in Wales, and those who make them comfortable in those days, weeks, months, even years of their lives after a terminal diagnosis. 

Jill and Joe, a married couple, both cancer stricken. Erika, eternally optimistic even when her multiple cycles of chemotherapy turn on her. Ray, a chatty grandfather with progressive motor neurone disease. Their doctors, nurses, therapists, family, all with their own thoughts and memories.

Che Francis in The Colours
Che Francis in The Colours

With gender-blind casting, we have Che Francis playing Jill and Morfydd Clark playing Joe  – she’s pragmatic and caring, he wants to make sure he “keeps his nerve”. They met back in the day when Alvin Stardust topped the charts with bubblegum pop, but Joe prefers rock now.

Music is important in The Colours. Donny Osmond, Cat Stevens, George Ezra riding shotgun. The passing of time, the passing of music. Sand for both, and for places, too, beaches real and imagined, endless cups of tea, snatches of conversation.

Morfydd Clark, Claire Marie Hall and Mark Knightley in The Colours
Morfydd Clark, Claire Marie Hall and Mark Knightley in The Colours

The theme might not lend itself to an enjoyable evening on the surface, but I found this play beautifully composed and overwhelmingly positive in its honest depiction of love, friendship, humour and human fraility as death approaches. Ultimately it is about the thoughts we have in our heads, what makes us human, what we leave behind.

The Colours will move you, yes. It will make you stop and think, but it will not depress or scare you.  As the ethos of Crowded Room puts it, this piece of cross-form theatre will, and does, empower you as an audience member.

A truly special piece of theatre, you have until 17 August to catch it. You can book tickets at https://sohotheatre.com/shows/the-colours/ . Photo credits by Hannah Anketell.

Morffyd Clark in The Colours
Morffyd Clark in The Colours

The View UpStairs (Soho Theatre)

The first European production of Max Vernon’s musical comes to Soho, and provides a story of time travel, understanding, companionship, community, hope, and catastrophe against the backdrop of the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in 1973 New Orleans (which was also referenced as part of the past of the lead character in Martin Sherman’s play Gently Down The Stream, which I saw earlier this year).

In the dilapidated ruins of the upstairs bar, left vacant for too long, we see first see Buddy (John Partridge) light up the first of many cigarettes, before launching into song and then into the shadows. Instagram celebrity fashionisto Wes (Tyrone Huntley) arrives with the realtor to sign the deal on the place, but he struggles to see its potential.

John Partridge as Buddy
John Partridge as Buddy

While taking photos for his feed, the rest of the cast hover in the part-darkness, ghostly reflections of a time gone by, and eventually, Wes finds himself catapulted back from 2019 into the age of payphones, bath-houses, bell-bottoms, and gay invisibility.

The power in the play is that each character is given their chance to shine – Buddy, the pianist with a wife and children at home, with his period-perfect glasses and kerchief; Henri (Carly Mercedes Dyer), the butch with an Afro who rules her domain behind the bar; Willie (Cedric Neal), the “old queen” who once shone at the Ballet Russes because of his legs; Freddy (Garry Lee), the quiet construction worker turned drag queen with a dress made from curtains and a cardboard cock shooting out glitter; Freddy’s mother, Inez (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), whose dreams of coming to the mainland from Puerto Rico did not involve helping her son with his make-up; and Patrick (Andy Mientus), the teenage hustler.

The twin peaks of brotherhood and ostracisation are represented by the placid Jesus-loving Richard (Joseph Prouse) and angry, homeless outcast Dale (Declan Bennett), whose scenes underline the bond between the UpStairs patrons and their knife-edge relationship with others just outside that circle (the telling scene with the cop (Derek Hagen) who is quickly paid off to allow everyone to stay safe and keep their reputations intact is a good example of how the UpStairs Lounge is in its own little bubble, just as Wes is in his online space in 2019).

The company of The View UpStairs
The company of The View UpStairs

Wes’s presence clearly allows Vernon to bring in issues beyond those understood in 1973 – so not just hate crimes, gay-bashing, abuse, but the spectre of AIDS and the victory – of sorts – of becoming more accepted by some sections of society. Wes is a shallow and vain individual defined only by his followers and likes, but he slowly comes to understand the value of friendship and fellowship by interacting with each patron of the club. He also falls in love, perhaps for the first time, with Patrick, leading to some moving scenes between the two young men, reflecting on the differences in courtship and hook-ups across the forty-year time-gap.

The characters are of course, fictional, although the basic facts of the arson attack on the UpStairs are not – there was a man who visited each week, and was closeted, his family only discovering the truth when his body was found fused to that of his boyfriend; there was a house pianist (in fact two, Bud and David, both perished in the fire); there was a mother called Inez; and there was a man who burned to death trapped by the window bars, his body remaining there for a day afterwards, the church reverend who had led the service of hope and belonging earlier that evening.

The View UpStairs has catchy songs, both for ensemble and solo performers, and it has humour as well as political nous and moments that will make you gasp or find yourself in tears. The fire itself is evoked by lighting and movement, then by Patrick filling in the details as the final ghost standing in Wes’s new commercial space, the space which is finally filled with the images time and custom had forgotten for all those years.

Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick
Tyrone Huntley as Wes and Andy Mientus as Patrick

This is a remarkable musical, with no mis-steps from any of the cast (Partridge, Neal, Huntley and Lee excel, but everyone is very good), and a fine house band led by musical director Bob Broad. Jonathan O’Boyle directs (and with some audience members on the stage as if they are non-player characters in the space that may be challenging), and Fabian Aloise choreographs a brilliant set of sequences which utilise the chairs, bar and every inch of the compact stage.

The View UpStairs continues at the Soho Theatre until 24 August 2019. I got an early-bird discounted ticket for the second row, but there are good sightlines across the space wherever you choose to sit.

Photo credits Darren Bell.

Mouthpiece (Soho Theatre)

Kieran Hurley’s hard-hitting, earthy play makes its London debut at the Soho Theatre, and I was pleased to be invited to review it – it proves to be a quite brilliant piece of theatre; one of the best so far this year.

Lorn Macdonald and Neve McIntosh in Mouthpiece

Lorn Macdonald and Neve McIntosh in Mouthpiece

A two hander, it starts when Neve McIntosh’s Libby sits at a table, speaks into a microphone, and tells us how a stage play is constructed. From this point, she is rescued from the top of Salisbury Crags by Lorn Macdonald’s young and troubled Declan, who has sought a quiet corner to draw in.

Libby, the writer, sees fresh material in Declan, the artist. Building his trust through bacon rolls, gallery trips, and a fumbled hand job on his young sister’s bed, she forms a new play about him, called in a meta way, Mouthpiece, but she makes his ending tragic, his life bleak and hopeless.

Lorn Macdonald and Neve McIntosh in Mourhpiece

Lorn Macdonald and Neve McIntosh in Mouthpiece

Utilising the rough speech of the poorest parts of Glasgow, the story pulls these two misfits together. She, mid-forties, with writers’ block and unsettled thoughts; he, teenage, given to anxiety and rages, carer for his small sister (‘the wee yin’).

With Libby’s conspiratorial addresses to the audience at key points in the narrative, and Declan’s heart-rending speech from within the very space from which we watch, the last drop is wrung from this strange and powerful piece.

Neve McIntosh in Mouthpiece

Neve McIntosh in Mouthpiece

It’s a tough play, a hard watch, and a piece of brilliant stagecraft. If you experience this with a dry throat and a damp eye, you will have engaged with Hurley’s world and understood the price both protagonists had to pay to make the Mouthpiece within the Mouthpiece come to life.

Directed by Orla O’Loughlin, designed by Kai Fischer with music by Kim Moore, this play did well last year at the Traverse Theatre. Both characters are pervasively and believably portrayed by the actors, who command the small stage throughout.

It continues at the Soho Theatre until the 4 May 2019, and I would urge you to go and see this tense and challenging production. For more details see https://sohotheatre.com/shows/mouthpiece/

Photo credits Roberto Ricciuti.