Cagney and Racy

Sharon Gless impresses in A Round-Heeled Woman at the Riverside Studios

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Sharon Gless - Pic. George Schiavone

Riverside Studios

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A Round-Heeled Woman is being performed from Tuesday 18 October to Sunday 20 November

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The peerless Sharon Gless, best known as Cagney in the 1980s TV series Cagney and Lacey, is the thrilling star at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios for at least a month. The play is called A Round-Heeled Woman, an old expression for a prostitute. But although most of the publicity surrounding it is about its sexual themes, it has much more varied and richer themes of relevance to many aspects of modern life. It is done with such panache and warmth that its deserves a West End opening soon.

Gless and a small company depict the life of Jane Juska as chronicled in her book of the same title. Here’s a short synopsis of where the play begins (with a brilliant opening scene): When she reached the age of 66, retired teacher Jane decided that 30 years of celibacy was enough and put ad in the New York Review of Books that said: “Before I turn 67 next month I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk, Trollope works for me.”

This play is about what happened next.

At first Jane comes across as a sex obsessed trollop (pun intended) who wants to have lots of sex with strangers, in spite of warnings from her friends (played by Jane Bertish and Beth Cordingly). It’s easy to feel irritated with her, especially as some of the men are horrible to her but she can’t see that their nastiness is partly a cover for their fading virility. But it soon becomes clear that her search isn’t just for orgasms. Jane’s needs are deeper and far more complex. She’s trying to bury the past, but the more she opens herself to the personal emotions of sex and touching, the more the past pushes to the surface.

It is a beautifully crafted play, by Jane Prowse, which was commissioned by Gless after she bought the staging rights to the book. It explores a range of emotions, in turns very, very funny; very, very sad; and very, very uplifting in a roller coaster of short scenes, that leave you breathless. At the centre of, and on stage for almost 90 minutes without an interval, it is Sharon Gless, who apparently effortlessly moves through the emotional spectrum.

The evening is given an intimate feel because the audience is brought into the action, playing the part of her therapist as she talks about her encounters and her subsequent emotions and thoughts. We are the ones who help her come to terms with her difficult past - but not as outsiders, as we are on the journey with her.

Jane doesn’t just talk to the audience. Her fictional heroine, Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie, is brought to stage life (also by Beth Cordingly) to offer sisterly solace. She is another lady looking for a man, but only on her terms. As a teacher of English literature, including in her spare time teaching creative writing to death row inmates in San Quentin jail, Jane has lived her life through fiction. This is just one layer of Jane’s complex character that is played so sympathetically by Gless.

Occasionally, a salsa dance teacher and his two pupils appear to move the narrative along and dance out the raw emotions (including one of Jane’s orgasms). It is through devices like these that this become a fully fleshed out theatrical experience, not just an acting out of the book’s text.

There are five excellent actors other than Gless, all playing multiple roles (Michael Thomson, Neil McCaul and Barry McCarthy play the men). Central to the play is Jane’s relationship with her son Andy, who starts out as a ghostly figure and becomes more and more real as it goes on, forcing Jane to accept responsibility for the breakdown in their relationship. That breakdown is heartrending, and the way it develops later is crucial to the play’s wider relevance.

The nicest of all the men is Graham, who at 32 is young enough to be her son. He loves English literature and is the only man who responded to her ad who took her reference to Trollope seriously. They have much in common and he says age doesn’t matter and wants to make love to her. But she can’t: there’s too much about Graham that reminds her of Andy. And this gives rise to one of the most emotional parts of the show as Thomson, who plays them both, moves between being Jane’s suitor and her son.

Thomson is an actor to look out for him in the future as some of his scenes with Gless were electrifying. That’s a view I believe is shared by Jane Juska. She was at the play on the night I was there and Gless called her on stage to take a bow. She’s a tiny woman, very pretty with pretty blue eyes. I was very privileged to speak to her after the show in the Riverside foyer. She asked if I knew where the actor was who had played the ‘two men in my life that I loved so much’ because he had moved her to tears. Happily Gless’ personal assistant was able to locate Thomson in the crowd quickly so Jane could thank him.

A lot of Jane’s charm in the book and play lies in her innocence and naivety. As she hasn’t been touched by a man for 30 years she imagines those she selects will be as open, honest and nice as she is. She has a nasty awakening to the realities, but carries on to achieve a great deal she wasn’t expecting, as well as much hurt along the way. Gless is glorious in the role, switching between overweening self confidence and desperate vulnerability in a heartbeat, with her famous voice going from tingling sexy to strident to a whimper. She’s also a great comedienne, hilarious when she needs to be.

The amazing thing is that this is based on a true story. It would have been a very good if it had been a work of fiction, but the fact that it is based on truth keeps you on the edge of your seat.


Penny Flood

October 28, 2011