Review by Raphael Kohn
If I’m being honest, I’m not sure that I have the words to describe quite what I’ve seen in – and what I feel about – the newest play to tread the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre. I certainly didn’t quite expect a play about a sleepy town in the Wild West going through a process of gender revolution and rapid political progress towards emancipation and equality to touch me quite the way it did. Sure, it might have been charming, and humorous, but Cowbois touched me more deeply, more viscerally and more wonderfully than I expected.
Probably, this is principally due to Charlie Josephine’s (who took the London theatre scene by storm with their play I, Joan at Shakespeare’s Globe last year) writing. While billed as a ‘rollicking queer comedy’ – and it is a comedy – it’s also filled to the brim with heart and deeply thoughtful writing. Set in a small western town into which transmasc cowboy Jack Cannon enters, sparking a gender and sexuality revolution in which the residents begin to discover who they really are, and who they are allowed to be without the pressures and expectations of society, Cowbois follows Cannon and the residents as they learn to trust, to develop, and importantly to question.
It lends itself well to comedy – and comedic it most certainly is. The first act especially is laugh-out-loud funny, delivering punchline after punchline to get the audience well and truly rolling in their seats. Josephine isn’t lazy with his comedy either, bringing out laughter from silliness as well as smartly-planned jokes, using food items as a metaphor for gender identity early on to set up expectations of what Cowbois can deliver and make you think.
Subverting our expectations of what might happen, Josephine takes us on a different journey in the second act, with the introduction of new characters and a far darker tone to go with it. But it’s not a tonal whiplash, using themes and ideas built up over the first act in its execution of the story through the second. Drip-feeding heartfelt moments through the first, including one of the most perfectly penned (and magnificently delivered) lines imaginable in which a character newly understanding their gender identity remarks that now their ‘outside matches [their] insides’, the second’s darker tone and more thought-provoking writing comes naturally and feels genuine.
Performing such a play is no mean feat – indeed, it is the fine work of casting director Martin Poile that brings out the finest in theatrical talent to this play. A cast capable of fast-paced comedy and touching drama is called for, and indeed, a cast capable of fast-paced comedy and touching drama has been assembled. Not a single comedic moment is wasted, or thrown aside, but every single joke is well-timed, every thought-provoking line uttered is spoken with poise and care and the cast bring a precise, and enchanting, energy to the play.
It takes a touch of an odd structure at times, with its leads periodically offstage for long periods of time at points, with only Sophie Melville’s Lillian onstage for almost all, if not entirely all, of the play. The love interest of swaggering cowboy Cannon, she starts off restrained and shy, and blossoms in the presence of Cannon. Yet through her more difficult scenes, especially in the second act as she collapses on one of the walkways onto the vast thrust of the Swan theatre (indeed, right next to the seat I was sat in on the Press Night), she still delivers a tremendous performance, acting the hell out of her part from beginning to end.
Opposite Melville, Vinnie Heaven’s Jack Cannon is the stereotypically sultry cowboy we know and love from western films. Despite some of their entrances and moments being played for laughs as they suavely swagger onto the stage and raise a wink, or a half-smile, at their nearest audience member, their natural charm and cheekiness makes them a compellingly magnetic lead. Playing up the possible biblical connotations of their character – the initials JC, the ‘redemption and emancipation’ that their character offers the townspeople, and even more parallels which would quite simply be spoiling to mention – Heaven brings such warmth and allure to the stage that it’s difficult to take your eyes off them. Heaven by name, and most certainly Heaven(ly) by performance.
Heaven’s portrayal of Cannon goes further than just a swaggering cowboy too – their moments with Melville’s Lillian are genuinely erotic and sexy. Through Heaven’s charm and their note-perfect chemistry, the pair are a delightful match for each other. With well-executed intimacy moments from intimacy coordinator Bethan Clark (who also doubles as the fight director), they go from sexy to loving to heartfelt in mere moments, thanks to the intelligence and creativity of Josephine’s script.
The supporting cast are all fantastic as well – I initially thought too many to name, but I am so enamoured with their performances that I can’t help but write about them. Perhaps most shocking of all, and bringing the darkness at play to the stage, is Shaun Dingwall’s Tommy. Dingwall’s stage presence itself could fill a warehouse on its own, and in the intimacy of the Swan theatre, feels powerful and intimidating. Borderline terrifying and deeply threatening, his portrayal becomes almost excruciating in a couple of moments where his toxic masculinity, and deep-rooted menace, comes to the fore. LJ Parkinson (also known as LoUis CYfer when performing in drag) is brilliantly funny, if a touch underused, in their role as Charley Parkhurst, getting their chance to shine in the second act.
Perhaps Josephine gives some of the best lines and moments in the play to the role of ‘Kid’, on press night played by Alastair Ngewnya. Although only on stage briefly, Josephine uses the ‘Kid’ as a proxy for progressive, forward-thinking attitudes towards trans people. Regularly getting whoops and cheers from the excitable press night audience, the ‘Kid’ steals every moment he is on stage and Ngewnya revels every opportunity.
Surrounded by some pitch-perfect supporting cast members, it truly is an ensemble effort. Bridgitte Amofah, Lucy McCormick and Emma Pallant are superb in their roles as the women of the town, who are set on their journey of emancipation by Cannon, and Julian Moore-Cook, Michael Elcock and Colm Gormley are amusing, yet never losing a touch of danger, as the men of the town. Paul Hunter stands out as the alcoholic sheriff, helped by Cannon towards sobriety, while Lee Braithwaite’s Lou provides terrific dramatic pathos as they realise their gender identity more fully thanks to Cannon. And while it feels a touch strange at the beginning that all of the performers in this ‘Western’ play set in the Wild West of the USA speak with their British accents, it soon becomes clear that this specific directorial choice enables greater parallels with the Britain of today than if they spoke with American accents.
Josephine’s words are excellent, and the cast are tremendously talented, but Cowbois is brought together beautifully by its excellent production. Directed intelligently by Josephine and their co-director Sean Holmes to make stupendous use of the gorgeous space of the Swan Theatre, the intimately small space feels alive with the energy of the production. Set on Grace Smart’s simple but elegant wood set, blending seamlessly into the wooden architecture of the Swan Theatre, and with intelligently chosen lighting moments from Simeon Miller that truly accentuates the moments of heightened emotion, tension or energy, it is a multidisciplinary triumph, with the elements fusing in harmony together to form an excellent production.
I could go on. Seriously, I could. This genuinely affirming, proudly queer and remarkably touching queer play really struck a chord with me. It’s never preachy. It’s always engrossing. It’s one of those plays that when you leave, you want to tell everybody you know about. Honestly, it’s just what the RSC needs, a beautifully and soulfully queer show that, at the end of the day, teaches you the value of finding yourself. Frankly, it should be required viewing for many people in this country. Now send it straight to the West End after its (far too short) RSC run.
Cowbois plays at the Swan Theatre until 18th November 2023. Tickets are available from https://www.rsc.org.uk/cowbois/tickets
Photos by Henri T