COWBOIS at the Royal Court
“The trans and queer characters are self assured heroes who inspire awe and universal swoons from cast and audience alike”
The transfer of Charlie Josephine’s Cowbois from the RSC’s base in Stratford-Upon-Avon to London has been hotly anticipated and much trailed and it’s easy to see why.
In a town 100 miles from anywhere, ostensibly on the American frontier, a group of women, children, and a perpetually drunk sheriff, have been left behind by their male townsfolk who have gone off to join the gold rush. A wood panelled bar and four leather bar stools, backed with a sign of ‘no guns, no politics’ is all that’s needed to take the audience to this familiar setting. We’re introduced to each of the women through a prolonged discussion about how the ladies take their grits, with sugar or salt, the cheeky subtext of which sets up for a fantastical journey of gender discovery ignited by the arrival of the outlaw, Jack Cannon.
Playing with the image of the American cowboy, an icon of masculinity, is nothing new. The popularity of films like Brokeback Mountain and The Power of the Dog show how exploring gender and sexuality in this repressively conservative setting works. But where Cowbois differs is in centring the voices of women and trans people in a way that’s uplifting, rather than tragic. The trans and queer characters are self assured heroes who inspire awe and universal swoons from cast and audience alike.
The infamous Jack Cannon, played with swagger and style by Vinnie Heaven, acts as a catalyst for change for all the townspeople in sometimes magical and mysterious ways. De facto leader of the group Miss Lillian, Sophie Melville, is enthralled by Cannon’s charm. Their intense sex scene is deliciously wet and wild, staged under blue light (Simeon Miller) punctuated with moans and splashes from a substage pool. Later events are unexplained and unexplainable, but that’s no bother – this is a fantasy after all.
“There’s plenty of high camp music, movement and costumes that keeps the silliness coming”
Lillian and Jack’s moments of tenderness are sweet but surpassed by those between Jack, Kid, wonderfully played by Lemuel Ariel Adou on press night, and Lucy/Lou, Lee Braithwaite, where the bandit’s arrival inspires a recognition of something in Lucy/Lou that had not before been named. A small but perfectly formed moment.
There’s plenty of high camp music (Jim Fortune), movement (Jennifer Jackson) and costumes (Grace Smart) that keeps the silliness coming. A four-piece band (musical director Gemma Storr) plays on stage throughout that could only have been improved through being more visible, rather than tucked off to the side.
The action of Act I proceeds seamlessly (co-direction Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes). There’s broad coverage of themes from racial injustice to homophobia to trans bodies but these are all briefly danced over, with characters ready to absorb whatever is presented in front of them with childlike acceptance. This is no criticism – it’s cheering to just be absorbed in the charm and fantasy of the piece rather than having to think too deeply about injustice and inequality. But as the act comes to a close, things do feel like they are going all too well, and as the dancing spirals to a climax, low and behold the smoke clears and the long-forgotten men of the town are there in silhouette having returned to the town.
Act II brings the conflict, along with a barnstorming performance from LJ Parkinson as one-eyed Charlie, but it’s swiftly resolved. Rather than deep and brooding intellectual discussions, mostly the men just seem bemused and ready to accept the collective awakening that’s happened in their absence, before joining in for the gun slinging finale.
Cowbois is a queer western fantasy celebrating individual expression and love in all its forms. Its feminist exploration of gender identity will leave you feeling lighter and more optimistic than when you went in.
COWBOIS at the Royal Court
Reviewed on 17th January 2024
by Amber Woodward
Photography by Ali Wright
Previously reviewed at this venue: