You could almost taste the anticipatory buzz in the foyers at Stratford yesterday for the press night for Cowbois – Charlie Josephine’s rollicking queer Western, as the RSC has it. I’m not sure what John Wayne would make of it, but the first night audience loved it. Not unlike untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play currently at the Young Vic, it’s exhilarating to see an established, familiar genre of entertainment – whether it be musicals set in South-East Asia, or Westerns set in the Wild West – turned on their heads so you can see them from a different perspective. And Cowbois certainly does that.
The plot could be taken from any Western story. The women of this obscure little town have been left behind by their men, out hunting gold. It’s been a year or more, they’ve not heard from them; they’re probably dead. All the women have to sustain them is their faith, their school teaching, their running the saloon, and a drunken sheriff. There’s a bounty on the head of one Jack Cannon, one half of the Cannon brothers, the slickest gunslingers in the West. The other half, Harry, is now dead and buried at the hands of Tommy, leader of Tommy’s Toothless Boys, whom Harry hired to hold up stagecoaches so that he and Jack could relieve them of $200,000 worth of gold coins. But Jack, being one of those slickest gunslingers, took out seven of the Toothless Boys – by which I mean shot them, not wined and dined them – and now everyone is seeking both revenge and cash. So when Jack wanders into town, the women are unsurprisingly all a-quiver. I hope you’re keeping up here.
However, it doesn’t matter if you don’t grasp the plot – that really isn’t what the play is about. Never has that old saying to assume makes an ass out of u and me proved more appropriate. In the first act of the play, Charlie Josephine creates an environment where apparently cis straight women feel safe to give way to their inner selves; by falling in love with a trans man, or by starting to trans to a man themselves. Even the sheriff allows a new aspect of his personality to come to the fore. There is a beautiful, life-affirming moment when the Kid – farmer Mary’s son – meets someone he has always known as a woman but is now dressed as a man and with a male identity, and merely says “oh, ok” in complete unprejudiced acceptance. It gets a massive roar of approval and applause from the audience. Everyone is comfortable with their new outlook or identity – what could possibly go wrong?
What goes wrong is the return of their husbands in the second act. They’re still alive, against all odds, and when they turn up at the saloon to find a queer party going on, it’s no surprise that they’re taken aback. Seeking to return to the relationships they left, their only options are to either dominate and cow the women back to their previous suppressed lives, or to accept the new order. Jack quickly absents themself from the situation – again no surprise. But how is all this going to get resolved, and what happens when bandit Charley Parkhurst arrives, also looking for Jack, and Tommy and the Toothless Boys also show up? In the words of Harry Hill, there’s only one way to resolve this – fight!
The set-up, dialogue and unpredictable plot development in the first act are all outstanding. Charlie Josephine has created terrific characters, well-drawn, full of their own funny idiosyncrasies, and beautifully reflecting the staleness of lonely life in the town. There’s absolutely no reason, for example, why the conversations about the way Miss Lillian eats her breakfast grits should be so funny – but it is. And when Jack Cannon arrives on the scene, all eyes are upon them as – in my humble opinion – they are one of the most charismatic and spellbinding characters to appear on a stage for a very long time.
The one downfall of the play is that the second act cannot live up to the high expectations set by the first. Primarily, Jack is absent for much of the act and the audience really misses them. And sadly, I can’t help but feel the writer missed a trick by making all the men either violent bullies or plain thick. Their toxic masculinity comes across as a blunt tool when all the other characters have such nuance. Whilst the wives all go on substantial personal journeys, the men remain static; what a hoot it would have been to have had a Brokeback Mountain moment in there too. But I guess that was not a priority for the writer – after all, it has been done before. But the trans element of Cowbois is what sets this play apart from pretty much any other play I’ve come across – and that’s a superb achievement.
Grace Smart has designed an elegant, simple set, with the saloon bar towards the back of the stage, and a nicely hidden sunken bath towards the front, of which Jack and Lillian will – shall we say – take advantage. The costumes are excellent throughout; she has given Jack a few suitably eye-catching outfits, and the sheriff’s second act hat is a work of amazing millinery civil engineering. There’s some entertaining semi-country music from the small band of four musicians nestling stage right; and co-directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes make maximum use of the theatre’s non-stage spaces for the shootout climax – even if it does go on a bit too long.
Vinnie Heaven’s performance as Jack is a marvel. Cheeky, charismatic, and hugely likeable – not bad going for someone who’s only recently killed seven men. No wonder all the townswomen go weak at the knees. From the moment Jack arrives on stage you know that they’re in charge. But they’re not just a brash Lord Flashheart type, their performance is subtle, charming, brimming with both confidence and vulnerability. A terrific performance. Sophie Melville is also excellent as Miss Lillian, saloon landlady and Jack’s new love. As with most of the female roles, she particularly shines in the first act, with comic authority and conviction. I loved her double act with Emma Pallant’s deeply religious Sally Ann, disapproving of everything from sexual attraction to shooting to save your life. There’s a stonkingly fun performance from LJ Parkinson as nonbinary bandit Charley Parkhurst, cavorting around the stage with dangerous devilment. Lee Braithwaite’s transformation from Lucy to Lou is touchingly done, and, in our performance last night, the surprisingly mature and endearing Alastair Ngwenya smashed it as the Kid, as young people would say.
Quentin Letts won’t like it, but if you suspect you might, I reckon you’ll love it. It’s not perfect, but then it’s about people, and people aren’t perfect. Recommended!
Production photos by Henri T