Shortly after the Bush Theatre's Edinburgh Fringe run of a solo show about one gay icon – the magnificent Bette Bourne portraying Quentin Crisp in Tim Fountain's Resident Alien (which returns to London's Drill Hall in December) – the venue's first autumn offering on its home ground is another solo show about another. In this case the subject is Jacqueline Susann, author of the best-selling Valley Of The Dolls and self-proclaimed as one of the defining images of the 1960s.
Paul Minx's See How Beautiful I Am falls squarely into that all-too-common sub-genre: famous person about to die looks back on the laughter and tears of his/her life. And indeed the heart sinks when the lights go up on a hospital room with an emaciated figure barely visible under the blankets. But the cancer-riddled death-bed Jackie is no more than a dummy, a prop for Debora Weston to contemplate as the "real" Jackie whilst she prowls around the room, firing off patter to the audience like one of the more ebullient of the 500-odd Jewish comedians she claims to have slept with on her way to success. She even calls out her own exaggerated audience set-up lines: "She was so cheap – 'How cheap was she?' – Well..."
There is much more laughter than tears in the bare hour of Minx's play: it is a celebration rather than a memorial, in praise of the semi-successful model (the title comes from the slogan of a TV commercial campaign she appeared in) and failing actress who reinvented herself as a writer and in the process created the blockbuster airport novel. Towards the end, Weston does actually get into the bed along with the dummy for a few minutes, to write "goodbye notes" to her loved ones, but even here the pathos serves more to undercut the chuckles than to constitute the main theme. It only dominates when Jackie considers her autistic son, and it is significant that the longer such references continue, the less they pay off in terms of poignancy.
Weston's performance matches the tone of the play: ebullient and unrepentant, like the stage persona of Susann's one-time lover Ethel Merman. She prances around, all but chain-smokes, offers pills ("dolls") to the audience and imagines her encounter at the pearly gates with the God whose printed word she outsold at one point. It is a slight piece, not pretending to offer any insights into the universal human condition or even particularly profoundly into the condition of Jacqueline Susann, but an enjoyable one.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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