Review by Daz Gale
One short day after wowing everyone with their stellar looking 2024 season, one of the highlights of the RSC’s output last year makes its way to London. After a critically acclaimed season at the Swan Theatre in October (including a glowing review on this website), Cowbois has moseyed up to London for a limited season at Royal Court, but would this show about the Wild West elicit the same response and drive London audiences wild?
Reviewing a show more than once is a tricky subject. Usually when something has transferred from one venue to another, we are invited to review again. Sometimes it can be the same reviewer twice - you will find multiple reviews here from me, where sometimes the verdict remains the same and other times, for one reason or another, something changes. As this website has a team of reviewers, there is also the notion of personal taste which is always the beauty of theatre. While we strive to keep a consistent voice across the website, we all respond to shows in different ways and, as such, my response to this show in particular was markedly different to that of my colleague who awarded it five stars last time. Saddle up as I unravel my own rather conflicted feelings to Cowbois.
Described as a rollicking queer Western, Charlie Josephine’s Cowbois is set in a sleepy town in the Wild West as a group of women still dealing with the absence of their long missing husbands see their lives, relationships and even their identities turned upside down when handsome bandit Jack Cannon rides into town, impacting everyone he crosses paths with in ways that will change their lives forever, inspiring a gender revolution.
Charlie's writing gradually reveals itself to be full of depth as it tackles gender identities and personal awakenings in a beautifully unflinching way. Given the attitudes towards trans people in society, a play like Cowbois feels timely and crucial in its bid to combat the hatred that is so prevalent in media and life in general. A kid's unbothered reaction to a characters change from dressing as a woman to their realisation of identifying as a man was fabulously underplayed, reminding that these attitudes are instilled in children from other generations in a truly heartwarming moment.
The narrative of act 1 in particular is a testament to Charlie's writing as characters begin the journey of self-discovery and educating themselves on issues they hadn't previously understood or even given thought to such is the societal expectation of them. At the centrepiece of this is Miss Lillian (Sophie Melville) whose growth into herself has a ripple effect across the women we meet in the opening scene. With these serious subjects buried under the bravado of humour, it created a truly joyous first act whose constant barrage of jokes paved the path for the overarching far more serious theme that underpinned the play. With the first act ending on a twist (no spoilers here), it sets itself up for a very different second act, for better or worse.
This act one twist gave the second act a difficult task as the tone of the show changed significantly, creating two markedly different acts. The problem is the significance of this plot development undid, the strengths from act one creating an uneven and disjointed second act. Feeling far weaker than the first, it suffers from questionable pacing and inconsistent structuring, with customers we had grown to love in the first act disappearing for the majority of the action. With the play culminating in a prolonged fight sequence, Cowbois leaps head first into farcical territory in a way I found quite jarring. Good fun perhaps, but given the intelligence of the subject matter it had set up in its first act, it felt inadequate for what the ending should have been and almost felt unfinished and underwritten in its nature. The constant cheering and heckling from an enraptured audience shows that my feelings weren’t echoed, but I hoped for an ending that had matched the brilliance of the show’s first act.
The direction by Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes was inspired at its best moments. Some creative moments and elaborate sequences full of unexpectedly thorough movement from Jennifer Jackson led to interesting choices which perfectly captured the conflicting tones of the show, bringing as much fun as possible, ramping up the camp factor at times, while still retaining its important message. Like the writing, it all got a bit messy in the show’s second act, but there’s no doubting the skill it takes to stage such an intricate and elaborate fight sequence, with credit to Bethan Clark for this. One f the strongest moments of direction is a stunning intimate sequence towards the *cough* climax of the first act featuring a surprise element to Grace Smart’s fabulous set design and effective pulsing lighting from Simeon Miller.
Jim Fortune’s compositions create one of the most striking aspects to Cowbois with some great musical moments beautifully displaying the casts impressive vocal talents, particularly when it comes to Vinnie Heaven’s Jack who, at times, felt like we were watching a concert of – and I would have lapped up every moment of that. A huge musical number from the otherwise underused Bridgette Amofah was a standout moment in a breathtaking performance. With Gemma Storr’s music direction and Mwen’s sound design, Cowbois creates a gorgeous soundtrack whose musical moments amplify the biggest strengths in the story.
Sophie Melville shines as Miss Lillian, one of the more central figures of the story. As we witness her own awakening, Sophie delivers a stunning portrayal, displaying her versatile talents as an actress. From a withdrawn, understated performance to a strong and confident woman, she is a joy to behold. Lucy McCormick is a highlight as Jayne in a grand performance as she accepts a similar awakening, with Emma Pallant a comic highlight as Sally Ann. Lee Braithwaite gets some of the more heartfelt moments of the story as they embark on their journey from Lucy to Lou. As their identity becomes clearer to them, Lee delivers a strong performance of internalising this processs, helping audiences understand every step of this.
Paul Hunter steals everybody’s heart with a complex and charismatic take on Sheriff Roger Jones, managing to deliver some of the more comic and beautiful moments of Cowbois combined. LJ Parkinson gets a small but memorable sequence towards the show’s climax as Charley Pankhurst, ramping up the panto-esque quality at times and shattering the fourth wall. The most memorable performance goes to Vinnie Heaven for their immaculate portrayal of Jack. Exaggerated and overstated, their over-the-top choices create some of the standout moments of the show in a performance that threatens to steal every scene they are in. Their relative absence in the show’s second act does give others the chance to shine, but from making such an impression in the show’s first act, their presence is sorely missed.
Cowbois suffers from a case of peaking too soon. To say I was in love with the show’s first act would be an understatement. I fully expected this review to echo my colleague’s original one completely. However, the show’s second act created a conflict for me. Were I to review the show’s acts as two singular plays, they would both get different star ratings – however, this is a show presenting as one story and the review has to represent that. I still enjoyed Cowbois immensely and will die on the hill that three stars is still a good review. However, it’s peaks were too high which gave some of the play’s weaker moments an impossible level to meet. While I could see most of the audience were living for every choice as the play descended into chaos with its larger-than-life climax, I was longing for a bit more nuance which had been suggested through the nuggets of its fantastic exploration of gender identities. Cowbois is still a lot of fun and has many great qualities going for it. It may not be the fastest shooter in the West End (or close to the West End, at least) but it still manages to be an enjoyable (albeit bumpy) ride.
Cowbois plays at Royal Court until 10th February. Tickets from https://royalcourttheatre.com/
Photos by Ali Wright