Based on a true story. In 1999, Jane Juska, a retired English teacher, placed an advert in the New York Times 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”.
Sharon Gless (aka The-blonde-one-out-of-Cagney-and-Lacey) – Jane Juska
Beth Cordingley – Natalie/Miss Mackenzie
Barry McCarthy – Jonah/Sidney
Kenneth Jay – Eddie/Robert/John (understudying for Neil McCaul)
Gwyneth Strong – Celia/Jane’s Mother
Michael Thomson – Graham/Andy
Set design – Ian Fisher
Costume – David Blight
Lighting – Nick Richings
Executive Producer – Andrew Welch
Producers – Sharon Gless (aka The-blonde-one-out-of-Cagney-and-Lacey), Brian Eastman
Do do do doooo, dah dah dahdah dada, doo doo do dooo – OK, it’s a tough job rendering the theme tune to Cagney and Lacey in print, but at least I made the attempt. If Ms. Gless had walked on to the stage and started humming that, I think the audience would have probably stormed the set and torn the poor woman to bits in a frenzy of adulation. Me included, most likely. Given the affection in which (apparently) the entire population hold Cagney and Lacey, this was going to be a success however bad it turned out to be. And honestly, it was better than I thought it would be – and then again not as good as I thought it would be. I honestly thought this was going to be a one-woman show along the lines of Shirley Valentine or Educating Rita- and lets face it, most of the audience would have come along to hear Detective Cagney of the 14th Precinct read from the telephone book. It would have worked very well as a monologue; even Him Indoors cooed “Oooh, there are other people in it” as we walked into the theatre. I’m not sure either of us really got what we were expecting. On the one hand, this is an interesting piece of theatre which explores female sexuality and ageing, nicely adapted for the stage and weaving in some obscure literature (Anthony Trollope’s little-known work Miss Mackenzie). Its slightly raunchy in places, a little melancholic in others, celebratory and life-affirming in others. And on the other hand its trite, hopelessly self-indulgent and created for groups of middle-aged women who feel the need for a girls night out and Ladies and Gentlemen in Sensible Shoes.
It’s a comforting little play, not likely to change the world other than making you feel that your life isn’t that bad and that you too could set of on a voyage of sexual adventure (if only you had the time and it wasn’t for the mortgage and Him/Her Indoors/The Kids. In fact, it’s the perfect “filler” show after Dirty Dancing (indeed, the auditorium looked more than a little bashed about, probably as a result of bottles being thrown by coach-parties of Essex Girls getting over-excited during the encore of “The Time of My Life”. We won’t mention the disaster that was Cool Hand Luke which followed it into the Aldwych and for which they literally couldn’t give tickets away). I just wish that Ms. Gless could have had better support from her fellow cast. She’s a great actress and she seemed surrounded by mediocrity, particularly from the two other women in the cast, who drifted on and off and occasionally forgot which accent they were using. Neither of them seemed particularly bothered, nor indeed talented. And it seemed particularly unfair that Neil McCaul’s understudy was so unlike him physically; from his programme pictures, Mr. McCaul looks tall, slim, quietly good looking and a bit of a catch – whereas his understudy is, well, short and rotund and a bit like yer UnkelArfur. As the other men in her life were being played by short, rotund and somewhat ferrety Barry McCarthy, Ms. Gless seemed to be dating an unending procession of short, rotund and somewhat seedy old men. One feels that a bit of glamour in the trouser department was sorely missing. In an ensemble piece like this, the “star” should be surrounded by a bit more talent, otherwise its all desperately uneven. Perhaps the bill for Ms. Gless is so high (she does, after all, according to the programme notes, have five homes to maintain, poor cow) that the producers didn’t have very much money left to play with.
I’m not entirely convinced that weaving in appearances from one of Trollope’s heroines really worked or was entirely necessary, nor that it was totally above board to give away the ending of the novel she appears in. Some of the writing seemed extremely clunky – there are several occasions when Gless addresses the audience directly, and there’s an excruciating “OK, it’s the interval now so lets all get a drink from the bar and I’ll see you in the second half” moment, which is truly cringeworthy. The show doesn’t really do Ms Juska many favours, as she often comes across as sounding spectacularly self-indulgent and occasionally self-obsessive (indeed, her programme biog reveals that she spent many years in psycho-analysis). I can’t remember from her original book whether this actually deals with her major issues with her mother and son, but these are the bits of the play that start feeling preachy and self-obsessive. The set is multifunctional and multi-levelled, but a bit too “unit set” for true comfort – the whole play is “on” the entire time, leaving one wondering why Ms. Gless has a tomb in her garden. Answer – she doesn’t; there are about 20 seconds in the second half where she visits a cemetery, but the demands of the “unit set” mean that the tomb sits just to the left hand side of the mailbox all night, which is odd and slightly disconcerting.
So, A Round Heeled Woman is OK. Its not a play that’s going to set the world alight, merely divert the audience for a couple of hours. But we both left the theatre feeling that it could have been so much better had Ms. Gless not been like the proverbial thoroughbred in the glue factory.