Harry Ward

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Dark Carnival

06/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Dark Carnival is all about death. If that sounds a bit off-putting, let me add that it somehow contrives to be a great big warm hug of a production (all about death). It’s brilliantly written by Matthew Lenton and gloriously performed by a fourteen-strong cast. Throw in the excellent Kurt Weill-ish songs of the charismatic Biff Smith, plus the music of urban folk band A New International and you have something that is as close to unique as it’s possible to be in a contemporary theatre. Oh, did I mention that the witty script is delivered entirely in verse? Well, it is – and that’s quite a feat all on its own.

The action mostly takes place below ground in Dickinson’s Brae cemetery, Glasgow, where many of the inhabitants enter and exit from their respective coffins, but there’s also a raised proscenium arch which gives occasional glimpses into what’s happening above the soil. It even offers tantalising glimpses of the doorway to heaven, though – due to austerity – that door is now kept well and truly locked, guarded by a fag-smoking, wine-imbibing angel (Natalie McCleary), intent on keeping out the riff-raff. ┬áThere’s a clever socialist edge to the narrative and I love the observation that the only deceased who have any hope of lingering in the memories of the living are those that have statues and shrines devoted to them.

We are greeted first by a narrator (Elicia Daly), who has some delightful interplay with members of the audience – Fraser, I’m sure she was exaggerating your exploits! – before introducing us to the other characters. There’s Mrs Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross), a whisky-swilling Victorian lady; Major Montgomery Toast (Harry Ward), who has traded his military exploits for an electric guitar; and there’s the restless John (Malcolm Cumming), who still has unfinished business above ground. We are also introduced to tragic new member of the Necropolitans, Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough, who uncannily inhabits the persona of a bewildered young child with total conviction).

There’s so much here to enjoy that I find myself increasingly dazzled by the scale and ambition of the piece, which has been drilled to perfection. The design, the lighting, the sound: it’s all spot on. The creators describe it as a ‘music and theatre spectacle’ and I’d say that pretty much hits the coffin nail on the skull. Suffice to say that my attention doesn’t wander for a moment and I leave the theatre humming the final song.

On the night we attend, The Traverse is pretty rammed but, if there are still tickets to be had, grab them now before the carnival moves on in the direction of Dundee.

Don’t miss this. It’s a spirited production in every sense of the word.

5 stars

Philip Caveney