As a 90s teenage grunger who legitimately held a memorial party for Kurt Cobain’s death in suburban Kent, inexplicably tie-dyed all of her clothes orange, and lost both her shoes and her dignity at a Blur concert, this production appealed to me on all sorts of nostalgic levels. The concept of ‘gig theatre’ with all its visceral and exciting promise is an enticing one, a powerful cocktail when coupled with the raw honesty in protagonist Cora Bisset’s true story of her fleeting taste of fame in 90s grunge band Darlingheart.
The tone is established from the pre-set. On stage is all the paraphernalia of a gig about to happen: banks of speakers, mics, instruments, and the customary gently drifting dry ice. Suddenly, Cora appears, immediately warm and affable, reading from her real-life teenage diaries, found in her parents’ attic, and the stimuli for the entire play. These documents meticulously detail Cora’s journey from teenage dreamer in Glenrothes to lead singer in a band supporting the likes of Radiohead and The Sultans of Ping. Suddenly the band are touring and partying with rock stars, spending money that they don’t know they have and being heralded as that most dangerous of concepts ‘the next big thing’. A range of effective theatrical devices bring Cora’s words to life: the clever staging from director Orla O’Loughlin places Cora centrally in ‘lead singer’ position as she recounts events, all the while surrounded by her band members, who stay in their respective positions at their instruments, supporting the narrative and multi-rolling across genders and types to often hilarious effect. The introduction of song to break the tension is an effective one, a Brechtian influence that allows for Cora to observe and comment on events, often with a wry humour that elicits a warm audience response.
Bissett’s writing is, like the best lyrics, well-paced, sharp and often stunningly poetic. Her honest accounts of her teenage naivety and subsequent unexpected success had the 17-year-old me who could only ever play four notes on the bass guitar holding my breath in hopes that things would work out. Yet all the while we know that they probably won’t; for we have also been introduced to the unscrupulous record producers and unsigned blank cheques orbiting at the edges of her story.
Later, an adult Cora shares with the same unabashed generosity the challenges of falling, bereavement and miscarriage, her words given even more poignancy when framed by her previous success. Yet ultimately this is a narrative of hope; transmitting at its climax the notion that the tired cliché of ‘living the dream’ is more about resilience and the ability to live at all. The production concludes with a message of strength – that what girls are made of is a heady cocktail of all their past experiences, hopes and failures too. Bissett shows us moments of hope amongst the very human mess and uncertainty; and I would love nothing more than to see this production staged in a site-specific venue that underscores this even more; the a big sweaty smoky concert hall of my imaginings as I watched it.