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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Round-Heeled Woman
Riverside Studios, then Aldwych Theatre   Winter 2011-2012

This is a show travelling under false colours, suggesting that it is going to take one shape and then becoming something different. You may find what it actually turns out to be more satisfying than what you expected. I did not.

It's based on a true story. In 1999 retired American schoolteacher Jane Juska wrote a personal ad looking for 'a lot of sex with a man I like' and Jane Prowse (who also directs) adapted Juska's book about her subsequent adventures in the world of sexagenarian sexuality.

Juska hears from a lot of men and sleeps with some of them, with varying degrees of satisfaction and disappointment. But this is not a saga of liberation and empowerment, because Juska's experiences all just make her more aware of her own emotional damage and neediness, with every step forward taking her back into memories of past failures and recognition of her own emptiness. 

Now, that could be an interesting and involving emotional journey, were it not that everything Juska uncovers – at least as Prowse presents it – is a soap opera clich. She's attracted to a strong older man because she's still trying to win daddy's love, she rejects a younger man because he raises thoughts of her estranged son, she feels inadequate as a woman because her mother 'abandoned' her by dying, and so on.

If this is indeed what Jane Juska discovered about herself, I'm sure it was a valuable emotional journey for her. But it makes for purely formulaic and uninteresting drama. Perhaps even worse, it makes the stage Juska come across as weak and needy rather than sexually adventurous, a difficult character to sympathise or identify with. 

And that distance allows us to notice and be bothered by other unattractive qualities in the character – a dependence on alcohol, a snobbishness toward an uncultured but pleasant enough cabdriver she meets, and the ability to be outraged with absolutely no self-awareness or sense of irony by men who just use her for sex or see other women.

Although this is not a solo show – a trio of actors play various men and two actresses play Juska's worried friends – it is primarily a vehicle for the central actress. Sharon Gless (yes, the blonde one from TV's Cagney and Lacey, as I'm sure she is tired of being labelled) has spent most of her career in television, but she holds the stage well and is at her best in flashes of the character's wit and high spirits. 

But she and the director have chosen to show those qualities only in brief flashes, with Gless making Juska weepy and indecisive too much of the time for the character to remain attractive or even interesting. 

One thing A Round-Heeled Woman definitely is not is pornographic. But other things it isn't, or is only fitfully, are comic, high-spirited, inspiring or celebratory of mature sexuality. Instead, it's a soap opera about a woman whose eventual hope for happiness has a lot to do with facing her old demons and very little to do with her adventures in sex.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   A Round-Heeled Woman - Aldwych 2011

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