Reviewer's rating

Let me start by saying that for me COWBOIS is unmissable because it does exactly what good theatre is supposed to do – it takes on the issues that are currently important for us and puts them up on a stage for us to experience at a remove that will stimulate real emotional and intellectual understanding. But if a play only deals with “the current,” it can soon become dated. For me COWBOIS seemed, watching it cold the first time, also to access the real issues that lie beneath its themes.

The show deals, through portraying various romantic and sexual approaches to life of the characters (including political, moral and religious preoccupations), with confronting our need to understand and accept whoever we happen to be and how that impacts on our love lives, relationships and life choices as well as our fears and our courage. It deals with the need to question received authority and current conventions on how to live that dominate our society. It shows how we need to learn to overcome and even overthrow societal and religious norms when necessary. It deals with friendship, relationship and generous love at its deepest levels. It deals with recognising who we are in ourselves and also with our need to recognise the reality of the otherness of those we care about. It deals with facing our realities and accepting them in ourselves and in anyone we love.

The script is brilliantly witty and playful throughout. It sets the story in a mythical town in the American West that clearly plays with all the tropes of Westerns. The first act of the play is the setup, set in a town in the Old West where the men have deserted the place for the Gold Rush in hopes of finding great wealth. The women are beginning to crack under the strain of the absence of their men for several reasons; and then the outlaw Jack Cannon arrives. Only it isn’t Clint Eastwood, a macho Man with No Name. It’s an attractively androgynous man, out for revenge, chased by other outlaws, needing a hideout; but also becoming an agent of liberation for the abandoned women. In Act Two you gets a series of payoff, but I don’t want to give too much away. One of the delights of the play is its series of surprises.

Yes, there are LGBTQ+ issues. But that’s not the central interest of this play for me. These illustrate and amplify the underlying themes. Just as liberation and revolution are beginning to happen for the women, the testosterone-driven macho men of the town return at the end of Act One. The clash between the women’s individual needs and the accepted norms that the men want to reimpose works out in Act Two, so that this is also a feminist play; and though there are moments of debate about different approaches to life, the strength and importance of this play is that everything is dramatised. There is always a twist that subverts the trope or the expectations. So this isn’t a play about being “Woke”. This is a play about what makes it necessary for Woke to be.

The production is visually arresting, with a perfect design from Grace Smart. It comes across as a bit of a musical too, with fine songs and lyrics performed with panache by the cast and composed by Jim Fortune. The choreography and movement by Jennifer Jackson is sometimes startling and always a pleasure to behold. The performances are consistently engaging. Sophy Melville is endlessly attractive and anchors the show completely as Miss Lillian; and Vinnie Heaven is everything that Jack needs to be – androgynous, witty, courageous, strong, sensitive, agile in his movement. Their major love-making scene is a highlight and lovely to behold! Paul Hunter’s is a standout performance as Sheriff Roger Jones, who overcomes his drinking habit when he allows himself to enjoy silk against his skin. Emma Pallant, Bridgette Amfah, Lucy McCormick and Lee Braithwaite are only some of the standout performances. The cast works as a true ensemble.

The script is witty and also, at times, strangely wistful and even troubling. The siege of the town by the bandits at the end (sorry, a spoiler) is staged with all the style and experience of those Shakespearean battle scenes that we see regularly at the RSC.

I have huge praise for the brilliant script by Charlie Josephine and the realization of the script by directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes. COWBOIS is, to summarise, entertaining, thought provoking, humorous and troubling and brilliantly staged. It is endlessly entertaining. It’s also limiting to think about it as simply an LGBTQ+ story. It’s really about accepting ourselves and about the strains, pains and gains of relationships of all kinds and how to live our lives once we figure out who we actually are