'Cowbois' review – this big-hearted queer take on the Wild West bangs a drum for tolerance

Read our three-star review of Charlie Josephine's roisterous play Cowbois, now in performances at the Royal Court to 10 February.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

There’s no such thing as utopia in the swagger-filled landscape of Cowbois, the big-hearted if baggy play that has arrived at the Royal Court after premiering last autumn at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A Royal Shakespeare Company production belonging to the bygone regime of acting artistic director Erica Whyman, since superseded in that post by Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey, the play is the brainchild of Charlie Josephine, the theatrical polyhyphenate behind I, Joan at the Globe two summers ago.

That show proffered a hearty non-binary upending of Joan of Arc, and Cowbois does much the same with such mainstays of the saloon-friendly Wild West as lusty barmaids and outlaws on the lam – that latter entity here given over to the nonbinary performer Vinnie Heaven as a gunslinger called Jack. They arrive full of surprises, gender being just one of them.

The ingredients are in place for a roisterous knees-up that bangs a drum for tolerance and is doubtless best enjoyed with a shot or two of the booze presumably available at the very bar that defines Grace Smart’s set.

But you don’t need to be Cassandra to guess from a sign on prominent display warning against guns and politics that the action will soon come to be defined by both: such is the world of the late 19th century occupied by this play and, one fears, of the modern day toward which Josephine tips a topical hat.

After a female-dominated first half in which men for the most part have been dispatched elsewhere, they appear, testosterone turbo-charged, in time for a wearying second act that casts them as sniggering, anti-immigrant brutes. (The stay-at-home exception is Paul Hunter’s Sheriff, who is duly revealed to have a fondness for frocks.)

The result sends notions of queerness, sexuality, and identity into a gathering crossfire laden with groan-worthy observations (“not even the gospels are gospel”) and an overstuffed narrative that finds the audience nodding in agreement when the question is posed, late on, “Can someone please explain what’s happening?”. The presentational style finds much of the dialogue delivered directly to the audience, which doesn’t allow the cast much complicit, character-driven rapport.

You applaud the zest with which Josephine, doubling as co-director alongside the Globe’s own Sean Holmes, energises anew an archetypal realm that, on this evidence, might make even the lusty cowboys of Brokeback Mountain blush.

But you also wonder why no one between Stratford and Sloane Square thought to take a scissors to a send-up that would benefit from less on-the-nose sermonising: the production runs nearly three hours.

The performances vary from appealing to exhausting, and some of the cast – drag king LJ Parkinson’s take-no-prisoners Charley, for one – look ready to lift off into an altogether separate entertainment of their own. I was most taken by the women whose pride of place is threatened and, chiefly, by two exemplary talents whose commitment to the London theatre is an ongoing delight.

First among equals is Lucy McCormick – late of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights – who brings her trademark feral energy to the schoolteacher Jayne. Her wild-eyed gusto is matched by the ever-invaluable Sophie Melville as a saloonkeeper possessed of sass to spare who, one can’t help but feel, would have taken one look at this script and demanded the sort of trimming and shaping that she and her colleagues-in-arms (or maybe not in that sign's ideal, weapon-free world) deserve.

Cowbois is at the Royal Court through 10 February. Book Cowbois tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Cowbois (Photo by Ali Wright)

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