2 December 2011
**** 4 Stars
The speedy and richly deserved closure of Cool Hand Luke has allowed Sharon Gless – the blonde one from Cagney and Lacey – to take a West End bow.
And what an unexpected pleasure it proves. When my colleague Dominic Cavendish raved about this show during its run at Riverside Studios, I was surprised: it sounds tacky and embarrassing.
The piece is based on the real-life memoir of one Jane Juska, a retired Eng Lit teacher living in Berkeley, California who placed a piquant personal ad in the New York Review of Books.
“Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.” Replies flooded in, and Juska found herself dating – and often going to bed with – a string of men, mostly but not all of advanced years, who ranged from the downright horrible to the genuinely likeable.
“Yuck,” I found myself muttering on the way to the theatre, expecting a mixture of American psychobabble and geriatric porn. In fact, the show proves a warm-hearted delight, even if some might find it a little close to the knuckle.
In Sharon Gless’s spirited, witty performance, Jane Juska comes across as a brave and notably honest woman refusing to surrender to the dying of the light. Long since divorced, celibate for 30 years and estranged from her son who walked out as a teenager, she admits to feelings of loneliness and emptiness that her passion for English literature can no longer assuage.
So she goes to meet the men, much to the shock and amazement of her female friends, and navigates her way through rednecks, perverts, total losers and the occasional decent chap with admirable dignity. She has a lot of sex, at least some of which is good. Perhaps equally importantly she makes friends, and fills a void in her life that isn’t entirely physical.
Jane Prowse has adapted the memoir with skill, as well as directing a sparky production in which Barry McCarthy and Neil McCaul offer hilarious impersonations of often ghastly men. The attempt to combine Juska’s story with scenes from Trollope’s novel, Miss Mackenzie, which concerns another woman spiritedly searching for a decent man, don’t quite come off. But the passages depicting our present-day heroine’s dealings with her angry son are affecting, while the conversations with her female friends and the many men who come into her life crackle with wit.
Gless negotiates the potentially cringe-making subject matter with panache, combining resilient humour with glimpses of vulnerability. There’s no on-stage nudity, and her moments of fulfilled sexuality prove touching rather than mawkish.
Jane Bertish and Beth Cordingly offer strong support as her shocked pals, while Michael Thomson memorably captures the anguish of her estranged son.
For those of us heading ever deeper into middle age, A Round-Heeled Woman proves an unexpectedly uplifting tonic.