A few months before her 67th birthday, English teacher Jane Juska decided to make up for 30 years of celibacy by advertising for a lover 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.” The resulting novel, A Round-Heeled Woman (the phrase is an old fashioned way of referring to a ‘woman of east virtue’) is the true story of the romantic – and not so romantic – adventures that her advert brought about. Juska’s book has now been adapted for the stage and the result is a bold, funny and often moving play about seizing life with both hands and realising that you are never too old and it’s never too late.
It can be a tricky thing to adapt a first person narrative for the stage, but director and playwright Jane Prowse tackles this quickly: from the moment we interrupt Juska (played by Sharon Gless) in the middle of phone sex – a brave opening scene if ever there was one – she is our guide into her own story, inviting the audience to join her on this journey of self-discovery. And what a guide she is: warm and engaging, funny and self-deprecating, but also vulnerable, needy and not afraid to share the hurts and humiliations she encounters. Gless captures this blend of fragility and courage, and punctuates it with a dry wit and a piercing self-awareness.
Although this is very much Gless’ show, the rest of the cast ably tackle their multiple roles. Jane Bertish is a deadpan delight as Jane’s chain smoking mother, while Beth Cordingly is both Jane’s man hungry younger friend and the pleasingly prim Miss Mackenzie, the literary figure with whom Juska so identifies, and whose tale provides an entertaining counterpoint to her own. As the men in her life, Barry McCarthy, Neil McCaul and Michael Thomson do well to differentiate all their roles, managing to bring the laughs even while exposing emotional frigidity and even cruelty in the men they portray. Thomson is landed with the thankless (and pointless) role of camp salsa instructor, and he struggles to make the underwritten son more than a sullen cipher, but that is a fault in the play rather than his performance (obviously dictated by a limited cast, having the same man play both her son and her younger lover gives the show a somewhat Freudian air, though it’s never quite clear how deliberate that is).
Prowse’s production looks great. Ian Fisher’s set – dominated a clock that takes a frustratingly long time to get to ‘wine o’clock’ – transports the audience from location to location: from the living room of a bookish divorcee to a chic New York hotel room to a graveyard. Prowse also manages the tricky balancing act of putting on a production that is about sex – and lots of sex at that – without actually containing any sex scenes; while she doesn’t shy away from the sauce (there are some quite graphic exchanges), she manages to avoid seeming prurient.
In fact, the main problem with the piece is that events are shown entirely from Juska’s perspective and it becomes increasingly clear that we are seeing her heavily edited version of what went on. The production too often tells rather than shows, and while Juska may be honest about her sex life, she is frustratingly opaque about everything else. A previous dependence on alcohol and pills is hinted at, and while her troubled relationship with her son forms a key strand of the story (albeit one that is too neatly and quickly resolved) it is the one part of the play that feels unconvincing and lacking in emotional veracity. This unwillingness to engage in the deeper, darker truth, combined with a resolution that feels almost trite, end up holding this production back; fortunately Gless’ charismatic and compelling performance ensures it’s never less than entertaining.