altA woman addicted to gin, crosswords and speed, who bred the world’s best racehorse and is the only woman ever to have been nominated as Private Eye’s “Sh*t of the Week”? How could I resist a description like that?

The Fringe guide did not steer me wrong on this occasion, and this biographical work about Jean Hislop, who swore like a navvy and once stabbed her husband, is a rollicking good time, of which the woman herself would most likely have approved.

Written by Hislop’s granddaughter Susannah, whom Hislop insisted on naming and who seems to retain an affection for her grandmother that the rest of the family almost certainly did not feel, Of Women and Horses I Have Known is a full-blooded account of a life lived on the side of racetracks, in wellies and pearls, and with a bottle of gin permanently tucked away in a coolbox.

Hislop seems to have been a fascinating character, and yet very little information is publicly available about her that doesn’t come from Dick Hern, the disgruntled former trainer of her prizewinning racehorse, Brigadier Gerard. He called her “the most unpleasant woman I have ever known”, and her two sons, Ian and Andy, don’t seem to have had much argument with that statement. Susannah Hislop, however, takes a softer view, and adds equal measures of sympathy for the terrible loss of two brothers and a husband in the Second World War, and celebration of a true feminist who never gave a toss what anyone, including her bitter mother, thought of her.

The staging is very interesting, featuring some wonderful moments of physical theatre including the best example of a mimed horse race one is ever likely to see. The cast are a varied bunch of actors, dancers and performers of all stripes who throw themselves into the piece with abandon, some more successfully than others. Susannah herself plays the part of her grandmother with a touching sensitivity combined with an absolutely rigorous dedication to causing a fuss by any means necessary.

Certain interesting elements are glossed over: the falling out with Dick Hern, her affair, the outcome of her attack on her husband. But then, a granddaughter can’t be expected to know every single sordid detail of her grandmother’s life, even if she was as bold, bolshy and unapologetic a woman as Jean Hislop. If we could all paint so vivid a portrait of our grandmothers as Susannah Hislop has contrived to do, we would probably all be a lot wiser for it.

Underbelly, 5-29 Aug (not 17), 8.40pm

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