What Girls are Made Of at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: open yet unreflective
What Girls are Made Of was a show that I had the privilege of going into blind. I was offered the ticket about 15 minutes before it started and knew nothing other than ‘Cora Bissett was in a band, wrote a book with the same title, and the Scotsman gave the show 5* so it’s probably good’.
Ushered into the Assembly Room swiftly before the piece began, I was faced with what looked like a typical live gig setup – An LED cube with a drumkit inside; stands for a guitarist and a bassist; speaker rigs. Soon, Bissett walks on stage with Simon Donaldson, Susan Bear and Harry Ward. This backing trio play the instruments throughout the show, as well as a vast number of characters.
Bissett starts by relaying a memory. Her father has just died, and she’s clearing out his house. Amongst the possessions, she finds a cardboard box filled with newspaper and magazine clippings from her entire career. This segues into a monologue that takes stock of that career and everything in it, from Bissett’s start in (short-lived) 90’s band Darlingheart to her time years later trying to busk on the tube and all the personal troubles that came with it.
Interspersed through the piece are instrumentals from well-known songs, live renditions of Darlingheart’s work, and even an original song written just for the show itself. Bissett’s voice is absolutely pristine – note perfect and ecstatically loud. Her show band, too, are immensely talented – both in their musical and acting capabilities. Emotionally honest and open, Bissett is able to make this show (which she’s done a zillion times now and will continue to do a zillion times more) seem like a one-off; as if she’s just discovering her past and reflecting on it for the first time.
All in all, I was reminded of Janis Joplin: Full Tilt. In fact, this show is basically Cora Bissett: Full Tilt. Funnily enough, Cora Bissett produced Full Tilt back in 2013 – it feels like there’s been more than a little… borrowing… from that experience.
It’s really hard to say this when it’s someone’s actual life story, but the problem with What Girls are Made Of is that, despite its energy and openness, it’s simply too melodramatic. There’s no real depth, or thematic exploration, or surprise throughout its entire runtime – instead, it’s a catalogue of steadily mounting personal tragedies painfully delivered by an emotive performer.
What I’m trying to say is that, if this had been a film, it’s closest analogue would have to be the critical bomb Life Itself – it gains its emotional strength through depicting catastrophe after catastrophe. We’re emotional because Bissett spends 1 hour detailing how she was fucked over by a record company, lost touch with her friends, watched her father crumble with dementia, watched her mum die of MS, and various other dismal events. We instinctively sympathise with the performer, and therefore we feel bad. But there’s no personal development – no insight into how these events changed what is currently the Cora Bissett, even from the performer herself – it’s just a list of ‘and then this awful thing happened’. 17-year-old Cora seems to be exactly the same as modern-day Cora, there’s no reflection.
I feel bad saying that, because it is effectively Cora Bissett’s autobiography we’re witnessing in real time – but I couldn’t help thinking about Spliced, which I’d seen the previous day. There was a similarly autobiographical story, which similarly canvassed a lot of personal tragedy, but it was a story that went deeper than that. It was a piece about personal development, which linked that personal development to gender identity and sporting culture – in other words it had something to say.
You can argue that not every show has to have ‘something to say’, but if I think about every one of the 15 shows I’ve seen so far at this year’s festival, they all did – even the theme park simulator COMA was trying to allow the audience to experience a situation that for most people is unthinkable. So if shows don’t need to have ‘something to say’, then why is it that even the most rudimentary of them do?
Another issue that we have – and this time it’s definitely not Bissett’s fault – is that the Fringe is just generally a terrible place to put on this sort of show. The late-night, cult and free Fringe audience is magical: drunk, up for anything, and having a lot of fun. The 2:45pm audience at the Assembly Rooms, for a show that costs £20, is stale. It’s tourists who are just stumbling into whatever the BIGGEST show is at the moment; it’s middle-class theatre audiences and families; it’s a lot of people who ‘didn’t really know what to see but The Scotsman gave this one five stars so I guess it must be good yeah?’
So Cora Bissett is up there with her band – lights flashing and guitars blaring, shouting and singing and giving it her all – and in front of her she’s faced with a sea of blank, unblinking, unmoving faces because IF YOU WANT TO MOUNT YOUR SHOW AS A LIVE GIG, DON’T FUCKING PERFORM IT AT 2:45PM AT THE ASSEMBLY ROOMS! The apathy in the room is so present that it forms an impenetrable screen in front of the performance – it’s worse than the crowd at Coachella. At one point during a song, Bissett turned around and laughed at her bandmates – I think that laugh may have been directed at the crowd. The apathy is, unfortunately, infectious.
Ultimately, then, What Girls are Made Of is good. The band is phenomenally talented, Cora Bissett is a spectacular storyteller and singer, and there are some real emotional moments. But I just can’t shake the feeling that the wide-eyed 17-year-old who joined Darlingheart would bristle at the thought of standing in front of hundreds of dead-eyed, seated Fringe audience members and performing this sort of ‘legacy’ show as they look silently on into the distance.