Dressed in a dizzy blonde nest of a wig, a power suit jacket and Victorian pantaloons, Susanna Hislop is wearing her identity crisis on her itchy royal blue sleeves. Her relentlessly optimistic persona is trying to perform a one woman show as Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Thatcher, and Virginia Woolf all at once. She dives into three filing cabinets full of allegedly meticulous research but more often ends up in the gaps between them, in a breathlessly original tumble which smudges makeup and tears off layers of image to reveal something messier, softer and more vulnerable.
Hislop is refreshingly unafraid to make her character completely absurd. Spinning from one end of the stage to another into position for Thatcher, Woolf, and Monroe, her creative vision blurs until Thatcher’s voice softens to a breathy coo, and Woolf’s self doubt hardens to prime ministerial unturnability. Her research files turn out to be dodgy dossiers full of facts on the three women that are so comically irrelevant they put QI to shame, told in odd sequences of two, four and eight. But she also emerges from the childlike vigour of her character comedy to do an immaculately prim turn as Nicole Kidman, justifying applying a witch’s nose to become Woolf as part of her own chaotically researched dressing up box of props. Or as Meryl Streep, finding Thatcher in her shoes and pearls.
These “great female roles” have to be accessed by their surfaces, at first. But Streep called playing Thatcher “Lear for girls” – pointing to the uncomfortable truth that such a narrative of female power and decline that can only be borrowed from truth, not found in fiction. By naively summoning these real historical women in her search for the ideal part, Hislop assembles strong voices that can never quite get to work in chorus. Through their cacophonous stories, her own breaks through. She reverts to a ferociously awkward 11 year old girl in tie dye t-shirt and bumbag, reading aloud from her diary as she admits to slight crushes and weightier problems with her own body image. Her lists of two, four and eight turn out to be an OCD counting obsession, and her research cabinets are pathologised, housing a file with her psychiatric diagnoses.
Back in persona, she takes refuge in Maggie Thatcher’s soft, near invincible glamour; the then President Francois Mitterand said she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe. But Thatcher was sufficiently desperate to lose weight that even in the run-up to re-election, she put herself through the Mayo Clinic Diet: a fierce austerity regime of unremitting grapefruit and eggs to rival any political scheme of action. Monroe underwent the same ferocious diet. The twinned pair’s struggles find fruition in Woolf drowning herself with pockets full of grapefruits, not stones, as her storied struggle becomes an incongruous outlet for their hidden frailties.
Finding yourself through taking on a role is a timeworn Pseud’s Corner cliche; think Nicole Kidman (again) emoting about the transformative power of working on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, only to distance herself from the experience when she found herself at the heart of a £50m flop. Hislop’s characters attempts to become her three flawed heroines are faltering and wooden, and uniting their stories as one is fruitless. But her defiant vulnerability bursts out from behind their skirts, strong and warm – a celebratory fruitcake with barely a hint of citrus bitterness.