Review: What Girls Are Made Of at Soho Theatre

When she was a teenager in Glenrothes, Cora Bissett wanted to be a rockstar. And then she was one, for a while, as lead singer of Scottish band Darlingheart – remember them? No, me neither, but in the early 90s they came pretty close to hitting the big time, signing a six-album deal and touring with the likes of Blur and Radiohead. But showbiz is a fickle industry, and all it took was one bad review in NME to start the reversal of the band’s fortunes that would rapidly bring the dream crashing down.

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

In What Girls Are Made Of, currently at the latter end of a world tour that’s taken it to Brazil, USA and back to Edinburgh for the second summer in a row, Cora reflects on her time as a teenage rockstar. Although it paints a vivid and entertaining picture of how unforgiving and exploitative the music industry can be, though, the show is about so much more than that. It’s a story of survival, recovery and finding a place in the world. It’s about family, love and loss. And it’s about not letting anyone tell you what you can or can’t do – especially if you’re a girl.

Cora herself is an engaging and charismatic storyteller; microphone in hand, she steps smoothly back into the role of front woman after 25 years. Though there’s no shortage of humour in her tale, nor is there any attempt to sugarcoat any aspect of it, and Cora’s raw honesty means that by the time we get to the business end of proceedings we’re well and truly invested. It’s these final twenty minutes or so where the show really hits home emotionally – perhaps we don’t know what it’s like to party with Blur, but we can certainly relate to the disappointment of having a childhood dream snatched away, the fear of losing a parent, or the desperate longing for a future that’s always just out of reach.

Fittingly, the show takes the format of part play, part gig, with all the appearance and atmosphere of a live music performance – it almost feels wrong for the audience to be sitting down to watch, particularly at the end. Joining Cora on stage are bandmates Emma Smith, Simon Donaldson and Harry Ward, who in addition to providing the music also frequently come close to stealing the show with their hilarious portrayals of everyone from Damon Albarn to Cora’s mum. Under Orla O’Loughlin’s slick direction, the energy of the piece never falters, and the transitions between the musical numbers and spoken word flow very naturally.

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Besides being a great nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up listening to the indie music of the 90s, What Girls Are Made Of is a fun and uplifting show that, like any good gig, takes its audience on a journey and then sends us home on a high, confident in the knowledge that while we may not all get (or indeed want) to be rockstars, it’s more than enough to be ourselves – whatever we’re made of.

What Girls Are Made Of is at Soho Theatre until 28th September.

Review: Empty Room at Camden People’s Theatre

Named for the only song her parents wrote together, which opens and closes the performance, Miriam Gould’s Empty Room is a deeply personal one-woman show that explores her family history and the important part music has played – and continues to play – in that story. A courageous, soul-baring performance, it’s by turns funny, poignant and surprisingly educational; I certainly know a lot more now about Dmitri Shostakovich than I did going in.

Empty Room at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

The show features one performer but four characters, all of them real people. There’s Miriam herself, aged 14, breathlessly giving a classroom presentation about her favourite composer. Then there’s Rachel Gould, her mother, a sophisticated jazz singer sharing personal anecdotes with her audience in between numbers. Next there’s fast-talking Sal Nistico: jazz saxophonist, self-confessed heroin addict, and Miriam’s father.

Finally, there’s Miriam again, but here and now, revealing directly to the audience that her teen obsession with Shostakovich is in fact representative of something far more personal – the loss of her father, an event she acknowledges she’s still processing nearly two decades later. With the benefit of hindsight, she can admit that for all his genius as a composer, as a man her teen idol had his flaws. In the same way, her father wasn’t perfect, and neither Miriam, her mother nor even Sal himself ever try to pretend otherwise.

Even so, and despite the fact we’re never able to see them directly interacting, the show always overflows with a feeling of deep mutual love and pride, not just between daughter and father but between all three family members. And what we do see is how their separate personas – each represented by an item of clothing – begin to intermingle as the show goes on, finally ending up arranged neatly on the ground around Miriam’s own violin, which takes centre stage throughout. It’s a simple but highly effective way of bringing the family together for the show’s moving finale.

It goes without saying that music plays a huge part in the show. The track list is made up of several numbers written by either Rachel or Sal, and just as we’re invited by the teenage Miriam to hear the hidden story in Shostakovich’s work (which also features prominently in the track list, unsurprisingly), so her parents’ music offers us greater insight into the people who created it. The impact of music on teenage Miriam is obvious, but while adult Miriam admits wryly that that younger version of herself was pretty intense, the passion that goes into her performance and presentation of her parents’ work live on this stage makes it clear she feels that impact no less powerfully now than she did back then.

Empty Room by Miriam Gould at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

Empty Room is the kind of show that makes you feel privileged – not only because it’s so well performed, but because the story it tells is so very personal. The final monologue is delivered with charm and humour, but also an intimacy and raw honesty that’s genuinely moving. Beyond that, though, the show also really makes us think about both the nature of family and the power of music within our own lives (after the show, each audience member is invited to contribute to the Survival Playlist). An eloquent tribute and an engaging hour of entertainment; with her first solo show, Miriam Gould has set the bar high.

Empty Room continues on tour – see for details.

Review: Saturday Night Fever at the Orchard Theatre

There can be few movies more iconic than Saturday Night Fever. Its place in popular culture is so established that even if you’ve never seen the film, you almost certainly still know the music and the dance moves, and you’ve probably performed some version of the latter to the former, most likely at a school disco or cheesy student club night. You also, I’d guess, know that John Travolta is Tony Manero, and like most people, you can’t quite imagine anyone else filling his shiny shoes and sharp white suit.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Tony is a young man in 1970s Brooklyn with little to look forward to in life; he still lives at home with his disappointed and unhappily married parents, and works during the week in a local paint store, with no obvious prospect of moving up in the world despite being very good at his job. The one bright spot on the horizon is Saturday nights at local disco 2001 Odyssey, where Tony can do what he loves: dance. When the club announces an upcoming dance contest, he teams up with new love interest Stephanie Mangano (Kate Parr) – funnily enough, the one woman in town who doesn’t want to sleep with him – to claim the prize, and with it her heart.

So given the tough act he has to follow, how does Richard Winsor fare in Bill Kenwright’s stage version? Actually, not bad. He’s got the classic moves and Manero swagger down, and leads the ensemble dance numbers under the 2001 Odyssey mirrorball with the cool confidence of a man who knows all eyes – particularly the female ones – are on him. For Act 1, that’s pretty much all the plot requires, but as events take a darker turn in Act 2 Winsor also shows us glimpses of the vulnerability behind the arrogance, and finally gives us a reason to root for Tony despite his many flaws.

This change in tone is reflected in the show’s other big star attraction: the soundtrack. While Act 1 packs in the legendary disco hits, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should Be Dancing, after the interval the pace slows, with numbers including Too Much Heaven and How Deep Is Your Love (and also Tragedy, during which everyone of a certain age could be seen physically restraining themselves from launching into the Steps dance routine). Almost all the musical numbers are performed by the show’s very own – and very convincing – Bee Gees, Edward Handoll, Alastair Hill and Matt Faull, but every now and again a key character breaks into their own solo, some of which fit what’s happening in the story better than others. Though all the songs are well performed, this lack of consistency in the show’s format jars somewhat, and feels like an unnecessarily confusing distraction.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

There’s no doubt, however, that the production succeeds 100% in capturing the spirit of disco – from Bill Deamer’s irresistible choreography to Nick Richings’ lighting design and Gary McCann’s set and costumes, which between them bring Odyssey 2001 vividly to life both on stage and off. Because the songs stand alone as hits in their own right, they take centre stage throughout; it’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the group numbers, or to feel a sudden urge to get out on the dance floor yourself. The show does have its flaws, and it might not be the most memorable start to the theatre-going year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t head home with a skip in your step, all the same.

Interview: Miriam Gould, Empty Room

Miriam Gould is a theatre-maker, performer, musician and writer. In August her first solo show, Empty Room, comes to the Camden Fringe, drawing on Miriam’s own experience and family history, and exploring the many ways in which music can help us survive.

Empty Room is about a family unit – a mother, father and daughter, who each, in their way, are struggling with life and using music to cope,” she explains. “In a wider sense, it’s about parenthood,  childhood, and music. The parents are jazz musicians and the daughter is obsessed with the Soviet neo-classical composer Shostakovich. All three are using music in different ways in order to survive. In their own ways, they’re all trying to find coping mechanisms for the absurdity of existence.”

Empty Room is a very personal project for Miriam, and was inspired by her parents, who were both jazz musicians: “The music in the show, some live, some recorded, is either written or played by my parents or Shostakovich – with whom I am genuinely obsessed,” she says. “My mother wrote some incredible songs which describe what was going on, with a poetry that gets to the heart of things in a way simple text could never do. I have always been struck by the power of music to communicate a depth of experience and emotion that we otherwise struggle to convey.

“From the age of 6, it was just me and my Mum, and the fact that she managed to be a parent as well as a jazz singer still baffles me. But mostly it inspired me to make my own way. My father died – spoiler alert! – and the amount of love and respect for him in the jazz community makes me proud even though I had nothing to do with it. So I guess, to give a really boring answer, my parents have inspired me. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s my mother’s compassion and forgiveness that infuse the show.

“Oh, and Shostakovich. He was amazing. He lived in a place and time where writing a symphony was a life or death scenario. And still he made the music he needed to make. Even though he was censored in every other possible way, and at times showed real cowardice in order to survive, he spoke the truth in his music. So, yeah. Did I mention I love him?”

Empty Room by Miriam Gould at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

Miriam started work on Empty Room all the way back in December 2014, and the following August performed a few works-in-progress in London and Canterbury. “It was just me, working in a room on my own. I’d never made my own work before. Then I got busy with other projects until November last year. I’d been wise enough to film the performances in 2015 and was able to show this to Alex Scott, the Artistic Director of Little Bulb Theatre, whom I very much wanted to be my dramaturg. I needed to not be on my own in a room for all the rest of the process.

“I’m currently in my last few days of tweaking the show based on feedback and how it felt to perform it in June when I had a couple of showings at Battersea Arts Centre. I really believe that sharing your work when it’s not finished, but you’re ready to share it, is so incredibly valuable. Especially with the right audience. BAC’s audiences are primed for scratch performances, so it’s such a great place to work and not be afraid of failing.

“When I first started working on the show, it was a revelation to me to perform as my mother and my father. I learnt so much about them by trying to get into their skin. It changed my life in a big way at the time. Now, I’m able to be more detached from the very close material. It’s obviously still important to be aware of how I’m doing emotionally throughout the performances, but the processing of the material happened in the rehearsal room.

“I love telling this story, more and more because of what it’s really about, and not because it’s autobiographical. I love sharing the idealism in it, the love and compassion, the passion and humour. I want to start a conversation with the audience. I always make a point to talk to as many people as possible after the shows, not to hear more about the performance, but much more to hear what it sparked in people’s minds or bodies.”

Although Empty Room is a very personal story, Miriam believes it will resonate with a lot of people: “I hope it allows people to rethink their relationship with their parents or children, especially if that relationship is strained. The younger version of myself in the show is very passionate and pretty awkward, so I think this will be familiar to how a lot of people feel even if they don’t show that side of themselves on a daily basis. I suppose I want it to be cathartic for the audience, that a space is created where they can have all the feelings and maybe connect with a younger, more naive part of themselves.

“On a less emotional level, I also hope that people will love the music, not just the jazz but also the Shostakovich. After the sharing in June someone said how rare it is for them to see someone play classical music. I have a massive bee in my bonnet about the (perceived?) elitism in classical music and I hope that by sharing some of the music I’m passionate about, some members of the audience might be tempted to seek it out for themselves.”

Empty Room at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

A unique feature of the show is The Survival Playlist. “Basically, each audience member is given a slip on which to write a song that has helped them get through a difficult time at some point in their life,” says Miriam. “If they want to share more about this, they are welcome to do so. There is also a Twitter handle – #SurvivalPlaylist – through which I have gathered some gorgeous submissions already. To begin with, it will be published and continually added to on my website with links to the songs. Eventually I would like to make this playlist available on other platforms as well, through Spotify and hopefully a podcast.

“I think the most interesting thing about the Survival Playlist is not the actual playlist itself, but the conversations and memories that it sparks, as well as the simple fact that music means so much to us, especially when we’re hitting rock bottom, and the playlist is a celebration of music as a survival tool.”

As well as making work on her own, Miriam is also an Associate Artist with Little Bulb Theatre and the co-founder of female theatre duo Double Trouble Theatre, whose work focuses on real-life events through soundscapes, poetic imagery and story-telling.

“In a lot of ways, the idealism of Empty Room echoes my own belief in the arts,” she says. “I am convinced that we have evolved to make art for a reason, it’s not just some frivolous thing to keep us busy in between the important stuff like shopping. At the same time, I wish we as a culture would view artists more like craftspeople, less like it’s some martyr’s calling, and more like an occupation. Which it is.

“I want the work I make to draw people in, so it must be entertaining, but I don’t just want to tell people what they know already, or even worse, not tell them anything at all. Finding the balance between communicating something deeper and meaningful and making work that doesn’t empty theatres, I guess that’s something most artists are trying to achieve.

“I see art as socially cohesive, which surely must be even more important now that we’re all constantly being divided and pitted against one another. I don’t want my audience to agree with me. I want them to engage in the work and respond, in whatever way is best for them.”

Review: Once Upon a Snowflake at Chelsea Theatre

Given that we had our first (very brief) snow of winter last week, the timing of Paper Balloon’s alternative Christmas show Once Upon a Snowflake seems particularly appropriate. Combining live music, shadow puppetry and storytelling, Once Upon a Snowflake introduces us to three spriteologists, who begin by smugly informing us (in song, no less) that there’s nothing they don’t know about sprites. But when a young girl disappears after an encounter with a mischievous winter sprite, they’re forced to enlist the audience’s help in solving the mystery.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

The show has plenty to delight audiences of all ages: catchy songs, colourful costumes, plenty of witty references to popular stories, and – naturally – a bit of audience participation (the section in which the cast improvise a story and song with suggestions and props supplied by their young audience is a highlight, if only to see how they manage to turn a shoe and an umbrella into a footballing dinosaur). As in all the best family shows, the humour is carefully pitched so it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s even an educational element: while we may not all believe in winter sprites, there’s still a lot to learn for all ages, whether it’s that polar bears don’t live in Antarctica, or that sometimes even so-called experts get things wrong.

But what makes this production really stand out from your typical seasonal family show is the skilful use of light and shadow puppetry, which are put to magical effect throughout the show, particularly when telling us about the missing Liza; it proves as fascinating for the grown-ups as it is for the children to watch her dream-like world come alive. The shadow work is incorporated seamlessly into spirited performances from Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear who, as well as spriteologists, also play at various points Liza, her parents, her neighbour and even the chatty sprite she discovers in her pocket one day, all while interacting with their (at times unpredictable) audience.

The two also have excellent support from Joseph Hardy, who not only plays an impressive number of musical instruments (frequently all at once, with the aid of a loop pedal) but also sings and provides wonderfully creative and entertaining sound effects for the story. Darren Clark’s music – like the rest of the production, which was originally directed by Maria Litvinova – has a very Russian folk feel to it, all of which adds to the show’s unique character and style.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

Once Upon a Snowflake is charming, quirky and different, sidestepping the usual panto conventions but still delivering a heartwarming Christmassy message about acceptance and friendship. Perhaps the story might go a little over the heads of some younger children – but it’s beautifully presented, and the show has more than enough joyous energy to keep most little ones spellbound regardless.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉