Review: RSC strikes gold with ‘queer Western’ Cowbois
"A rollicking queer Western like nothing you've seen before,” says the RSC. The programme explains how the playwright “asked LGBTQ+ artists to respond to the phrase ‘gender outlaw’”. Every name in the cast list is followed by pronouns. There may well be eye-rolling at some of this, not to mention conniptions among our more reactionary commentators.
But if they stay away, it’s their loss, because Cowbois is sensationally good.
Plays about contemporary issues can leave you feeling like you’ve been lectured at for two hours. Not this time. Aside from anything else, Cowbois is fun. Dazzling fun. Bright, bold, exhilarating fun. And it’s fun in a very traditionally British way: a bit pantomime, a bit Carry On, a bit Victoria Wood. The script zings and sparks. The music struts and sways. And it all brings the best out of the cast: it’s not just the characters who seem liberated, but the performers themselves. There are moments here where you think: why can’t all theatre be like this?
Cowbois set in the Wild West, in the saloon of a forgotten town. All the men have departed to find gold, but they have left something behind: a culture of oppression. It may not be intentional, and the men are certainly not all bad in themselves. But once you see what they have done, you notice it everywhere. The women might seem in some ways quite content, but there is a profound fear that constrains them, even suffocates them.
In swaggers a bandit, Jack Cannon, and everything starts to change. Jack’s very existence subverts, challenges and emancipates: where all was once dowdy beige, there is now colour, vibrancy, joy, song and fiery love. But the men return, bringing their stifling old ways with them. The ensuing clash is explosive, yet also surprising and affecting: the brilliance of Cowbois lies not in its boldness, but in its subtlety. Its ending encapsulates the play’s melding of tenderness and ferocity.
Cowbois is co-directed by playwright Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes, and they have drawn outstanding performances from the whole cast. Vinnie Heaven is almost otherworldly as Jack, enigmatic and magnetic. Sophie Melville is all manner of wifely duties and wild passions as Miss Lillian. Emma Pallant is a comic joy as the buttoned-up tempest Sally Ann. And Lucy McCormick is an outright marvel as Jayne: she spends much of the first half seemingly on the verge of combustion, and then in the second half is all aflame. Lest it get a bit much, Paul Hunter brings sympathetic solidity as Sheriff Roger Jones. But, as befits the theme, every actor is allowed to be themselves, to their very fullest.
You can quibble with some of it. Cowbois is a Western, so killing your enemies is fine. But it’s not quite clear what the equivalent act should be today. There is also a danger that it affirms a certain self-centredness: your ‘true self’ might not be your best self.
Be that as it may. Cowbois may change hearts. It may change lives. It may save lives. But aside from that, it’s an absolute knockout night at the theatre. They’ve struck gold.
Until November 18. Visit rsc.org.uk to book.