Festivals, Music

What Girls Are Made Of review (Melbourne International Arts Festival)

At 16, Cora Bissett declared “I want to be in a band!”. By 18 she was out of a band, £40,000 in debt to the UK tax office and bound to a record label determined to hold her to a five-album contract.

As a welcome to the real world, it was crushing. As theatre, it’s epic – an exhilarating, musical tale of teenage ambition, told from the wisdom of middle age yet with no less reckless energy. Bissett and band, in their Melbourne debut, have been getting standing ovations at the Spiegeltent. Bloody well deserved.

Though it’s a story of hopes dashed, I suspect the moral of Girls is: Get stuck in. Follow your curiosity and hurl yourself into life like a runaway train.

The band Darlingheart might have made no impression on the Australian charts, but in 1992 Scotland took them to its wee bosom. The band from Fife, with Bissett as lead singer, gained local radio play and gigs, and things happened fast. Flown to London, Darlingheart signed a record deal. Soon they were opening for Radiohead and Blur as Britpop gathered steam.

Girls is Bissett’s musical memoir of that time. With a crack three-person band, she ably “illustrates” her yarn via glimpses of her great loves, The Pixies and Patti Smith, and perfect piss-takes of ‘90s icons such as Thom Yorke.

Bissett is an enthralling story-teller. Girls begins with her father’s death in 2015, after which she discovered her old diaries and that her dad had kept every newspaper clipping about her short career in rock’n’roll.

By then an award-laden theatre director, she turned heartache into art. Grief, gratitude and a kindly nostalgia toward her childhood in a rough neighbourhood infuse this fascinating story about a kid whose early failure set her up for a remarkable career.         

Though it’s a story of hopes dashed, I suspect the moral of Girls is: Get stuck in. Follow your curiosity and hurl yourself into life like a runaway train. It might not work; as Bissett says at one point, “Sometimes, no matter how much energy you throw into it, some things are out of your control”. Heed the wise woman, study your craft and do your thing.

Bissett also confides her romantic lapses and the miscarriages she endured before giving birth to a daughter in her 40s. What Girls Are Made Of is a song as well as a show, an ode to then next generation of kids trying to find their way.

Bissett is a compelling performer, blonde and muscly, with a luscious accent. The band (Cathryn Stirling, Harry Ward, Simon Donaldson) supports her brilliantly, not just as musos but as actors, elegantly defining scenes from Bissett’s youthful tumult.

You know what this girl wants? I want some Melbourne pub-rock venue to say “Stay a bit longer, awesome Scots! Come play a full gig of your favourite songs! Just rock out!”

I’ll be there in my clan tartan, Cora, my wee lassie.

What Girls Are Made Of plays at the Famous Spiegeltent, Arts Centre Forecourt, until October 13.

Tickets: $39-$59 at artscentremelbourne.com.au

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