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Glasgow Girls - Cora Bissett's Radical Musical

In the corner of the Citizens Theatre rehearsal room, seven young women
are gathered round a piano, at which is sat musical director Hilary
Brooks, who leads the ensemble through their scales. In their
dressed-down tracksuit bottoms and voice-protecting scarves, the women
might well be attending some common or garden open-call audition for
some big west end musical in search of fresh blood.

Such a notion seems to be confirmed a few minutes later when they’re
put through their paces on a metal building-site set in a cheesily
choreographed routine involving umbrellas that help punctuate a song
infused with unabashed peppiness. Such a bright mood has been salvaged
after a piercing electronic shriek shattered the scales into discordant
submission. Such an incident gives a hint that what’s being knocked
into shape is no ordinary musical, as well as highlighting the tensions
between old-school jazz hands routines and more modern fare.

Such creative tensions are at the heart of Glasgow Girls, one-woman
theatrical whirlwind Cora Bissett’s follow-up to the Olivier Award
winning close-up dissection of sex-trafficking, Roadkill. Like
Roadkill, Glasgow Girls looks to real-life incidents. In this case,
Bissett looked to the inspirational tale of the group of school-girl
refugees who took on a Scottish Government which had sanctioned dawn
raids and the detention and potential deportation of their friends, and

Rather than present this as a gritty piece of issue-based drama, with a
slew of producers including Theatre Royal Stratford East and the
National Theatre of Scotland behind her, Bissett has opted to transform
the story into a large-scale commercial musical, subverting the form
even further by concocting a musical stew of contemporary urban styles
as well as influences from further afield. Grime, dub and hip-hop rub
up against middle eastern and east European rhythms by way of Scots
indie folk, and, yes, the aforementioned jazz hands number.

It's a musical,” Bissett gushes, “and we're not going to shy away from
that. It's not a play with songs. It's a musical. One of the things
that stood out in the original documentary about the real Glasgow girls
was that music was embedded in every fibre of the girls' being. You'd
see them dancing at home with their families in their flats. They all
gave this rhythm in their bones. You see them dancing to hip-hop, but
they've also got music from their own cultures in their blood.”

To capture this, Bissett drafted in three other composers to work
alongside herself, Brooks and sound designer Fergus O'Hare. All of the
composers have a diverse musical pedigree. John Kielty is one of three
Kielty brothers who wrote The Sundowe, the kitsch, zombie-referencing
winner of producer Cameron Mackintosh's TV-friendly search for a new
Scottish musical, The Highland Quest.

The Sundowe cast included Bissett, while Brooks provided some of the
musical backing. The bulk of the tunes were provided by The Martians,
Kielty's band who once included Fame Academy winner turned back-room
song-writer, David Sneddon. Kielty even co-wrote Sneddon's debut album
back in 2002.

MC Soom T is a Glasgow-based Scots-Asian rapper, who Bissett first saw
playing an anti-racist benefit. Something of a star in India, MC Soom
T, aka Sumati Bhardwaj, wrote the show's theme song, We Are The Glasgow
Girls, with Brooks. The song has just been released as a single to
trail the show.

If Kielty’s semi-comic songs are the light relief in Glasgow Girls and
MC Soom T its furious conscience, then Patricia Panther provides the
play’s dark heart. Bissett previously worked with Panther on Detainee
A, a community-based show with Ankur Productions which also looked at
the plight of asylum seekers in Glasgow. Hearing that Panther had
started making her own Grime music, Bissett drafted her in to provide a
downbeat urban noir for the scenes where law and order swoops. Panther
now also appears in the show.

To oversee all this, Brooks’ experience as musical director on shows
including Dundee Rep's Proclaimers-based musical, Sunshine on Leith as
well as work with Terry Neason and Dorothy Paul, is a major asset. As
indeed is the presence of Brook’ singer sibling, Lorna Brooks, who is
singing coach on the show.

There are links here too with Bissett’s previous work. Kielty acted in 
Whatever Gets You Through The Night alongside actress Frances Thorburn, 
who plays one of the Glasgow Girls. Kielty also performed songs in the 
show penned by an array of Scots musical talent who appeared in the 
show. Thorburn too has a music background, as a rising singer/songwriter 
who already has a solo album, The Needle is the Haystack, under her belt.

It's just a great big mash-up,” is how Bissett sees it. “It's got to
reflect the myriad of cultures of the girls. No one person could
capture that clash of styles."

Prior to a move into acting and directing, Bissett herself started out
playing in bands, Darlingheart and Swelling Meg. An early move into
left-field music theatre found her channelling Patti Smith in Horses
Horses Coming In In All Directions, directed by Grid Iron’s Ben
Harrison at The Arches. Bissett remains one half of the cast in the
smash hit lo-fi rom-com for the stage, Midsummer, a collaboration
between song-writer Gordon McIntyre of Edinburgh indie outfit, Ballboy,
and playwright David Greig, who has written the book for Glasgow Girls.
Midsummer continues to tour the world.

More recently, Bissett devised and directed Whatever Gets You Through
The Night, another lo-fi venture, which mixed and matched some of the
country’s more interesting songwriters with the cream of a young
literati to create a dramatic stew of stories and songs exploring
Glasgow after-hours.

Glasgow Girls is working on exactly the same ethos of all of this
things,” says Bissett. “It's just on a bigger scale. I think we've all
accidentally discovered a love for musical theatre, but we've been
making up the rules as we go along.”

Back in the rehearsal room, the Glasgow Girls are back on the floor,
but this time it’s definitely not jazz hands they’re doing. Rather, the
shapes they’re throwing and the music they’re making is a
multi-cultural melting pot of sound and vision, a whirling microcosm of
a global village in motion.

It’s a musical, and, like it’s subjects,  it’s loud and proud about
what it is. Listen closer, however, and it might just be the most
radical thing you hear on a stage this year.

Glasgow Girls, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, October 31st-November 17th;
Theatre Royal Stratford East, February 8th-March 2nd 2013.

The Herald, October 23rd 2012



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