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Review: What Girls Are Made Of (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe)

Cora Bissett stars in the piece with songs about her coming of age during the rise of Britpop

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Cora Bissett
© Sid Scott

The first time I saw a play with songs was at the Traverse Theatre, with David Greig's Midsummer. Or at least that's the first time I remember seeing something actually described in that way.

It starred Cora Bissett and Bissett – an actor, director, writer and songwriter – is now back at this address with her own play with songs, one which looks back at her teenage diaries in an attempt to find out what she is made of and what she can tell her newborn daughter of life as a woman.

She is an extraordinarily winning presence and she has a good story to tell because the teenaged Bissett was a singer in a band called Darlingheart which found brief early success and ended up as a support to Blur and Radiohead. Not that Bissett ever thought they would amount to much. "They're a bit whiney indie-schmindie boy band, ay? I don't think they're going anywhere."

With the help of three musicians – Susan Bear, Simon Donaldson, and Grant O'Rourke – who also deftly impersonate all the characters in Bissett's life, particularly her loving mother and her dementia-hit Dad, she tells her story with flair, and an eye for the telling detail. She recalls Damon Albarn playing music hall songs on the piano after a gig, which tells you so much about the young king of Britpop, remembers a wannabe busker singing Louis Armstrong through a traffic cone, and compares her mother's mental stamina to a Shetland pony, bred by centuries to withstand the wind.

On a bare-bones, fluorescent-lit set (design Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, lighting Lizzie Powell) she conjures the sheer exhilaration of her journey without neglecting the cautionary aspects of the tale – the predatory A&R men, who treat the musicians as so much fodder for their vanity, and the venality of the manager who takes all their money.

With Orla O'Loughlin's tight direction whizzing things along, it's all very enjoyable and quite moving as it runs towards its celebratory finale. But for all its skill and charm, not to mention some fine pop songs from everybody from Patti Smith and PJ Harvey to the Sultans of Ping FC, it feels a bit thin, unable to escape the specifics in order to point a more universal truth.

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