Cowbois, Royal Court
Thursday 18th January 2024
At its best theatre is a seducer. It weaves a magic spell that can persuade you, perhaps against your better judgement, to love a show. To adore a show; to enjoy yourself. This, at least, is my experience of Charlie Josephine’s Cowbois, a queer Western extravaganza which opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford place last year and now arrives, in all its shiny silk-costumed glory, at the Royal Court in London. Normally, I would hate the idea that this venue, which is meant to be our foremost new writing theatre, being just a receiving house for the RSC, but this fabulous romp just blows my doubts clean away.
Set in a contemporary version of 1880s Wild West, entirely in the local saloon, the story is about a wanted outlaw, Jack Cannon, who rides into a sleepy hick town, only to find it inhabited solely by women (and one useless drunken sheriff) because the men folk are away on a gold rush. The ladies are each vividly characterised: Miss Lillian (saloon keeper), Sally Ann (god-fearing), Mary (black and mother of Kid), Jayne (school teacher) and Lucy (black farmer). Jack is a trans masculine cowboy and their arrival ignites the sexual longings of some of the lonesome women — especially Lillian. But what happens when the men folk return?
Both a comic spoof Western, which subverts the Hollywood image of the American West and its cool stolid males, and a magnificent riff on gender fluidity and sexual tolerance, this is one of those joyous shows which uses rampant theatricality — direct address to the audience, crooning songs and energetic dance — to send you out into the cold January night with an extra pulse of heartwarming zing inside you. Beginning with a lovely metaphor for gender identity, with Lillian eating her grits and refusing the binary choice of salt or sugar, the plot shows how the power of desire breaks down the boundaries of heteronormativity. And bois, what fun ensues.
Cowbois is thoroughly playful and wonderfully enjoyable, taking the piss out of traditional definitions of masculinity while arguing that we should all have the freedom to choose who we love and how we love. It has some exciting dance numbers (thanks Jennifer Jackson), some brilliantly colourful costumes (thanks to designer Grace Smart) and some very beautifully silly moments. I particularly love the over-the-top sex scene between Jack and Lillian, and its resulting miracle, and also the transformation of the sheriff into a white angel in silk, and the arrival of rival bandit Charley, a hugely appealing nonbinary gun slinger. The way the clichés of the Western, from whisky drinking to strutting showdowns, are put through the mangle is superb.
Enjoying the brightness of the production, which is co-directed by Josephine and Sean Holmes, and embracing its warmhearted message of sexual and racial tolerance is not enough to blind me to the show’s defects. Yes, it’s all too long, there are many tedious passages and Josephine’s writing is frankly often too on-the-nose, too didactic and too simplistic. At various moments, I almost cried out: “Show, don’t tell!” Or: “Come on, get a move on!” Then a tender moment, or a funny exchange, comes along to charm and seduce me once more. Visually the theatricality and verve of the show, which demonstrates its queerness by bending genre as well as gender, is enough to capture any heart.
As with The Rocky Horror Show, and more recently Sound of the Underground here a year ago, this demonstration of the joy and vigour and noise of queer theatre gives audiences an evening of sheer foot-tapping fun, but admittedly does risk creating a thoroughly pink-tinted image of LGBTQ+ experience. Although Josephine does try to include some real conflict in the second half of the show as the macho men return to reclaim their wives and put them back into their cis gender roles, the play remains a comedy and the stakes are never very high. Still, it’s hard to complain that a camp comedy is unserious — especially when its embrace is so warm and inclusive.
Despite the scenes that outstay their welcome, and many rather messy bits, Josephine and Holmes’s production — on Smart’s sawdust saloon set — has some captivating performances: especially Vinnie Heaven, wearing a wonderfully red and white cowboi suit as Jack, and Sophie Melville coming alive as Miss Lillian. Lee Braithwaite’s Lucy shaves her head to become Lou, Emma Pallant’s Sally Ann overcomes repression, Lucy McCormick rocks as Jayne, and Bridgette Amofah stands tall as Mary. Paul Hunter’s Sheriff starts wearing dresses, while LJ Parkinson (aka drag king LoUis CYfer) does an unforgettable star turn as Charley. Of the men I like Shaun Dingwall as Lillian’s aggressive husband Frank. Great cast, great show. A riot.
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk