All Things Theatre is delighted to publish this guest review from theatre critics in the making: Meri, Jay and Imogen.
Mixing an archaic movie trope with modern queer magic is no simple process, but Charlie Josephine really left no stones unturned in writing this racey wild western play.
With a simplistically dynamic set and eye-catchingly poignant costumes, this flawlessly succinct performance is a satisfying watch for all ages with an open mind.
The script feels natural, while giving the majority of the characters a relatable connection to the audience and the story – although we felt Mary could have had more time on-stage and giving her story.
Melding dance and physical theatre into the production felt well-used but not an embellishment, giving an insight into the characters’ relationships when words weren’t enough. In particular, the bath scene between Jack and Miss Lilian struck us as a raw connection, without being too risqué.
Speaking of characters, the cast’s portrayal was spectacular – Vinnie Heaven’s soft vocals and smooth glamorous swagger sells a confident Jack Cannon, while Bridgette Amofah, Lee Braithwaite, Lucy McCormick, Sophie Melville and Emma Pallant all work together to create a developing dynamic through the show. It is endearing to see a change in all of these characters as they come into contact with Jack Cannon, which leads to their own exploration and self-realisation. Lee Braithwaite in particular, with their powerful depiction of the first steps of transition, left us feeling inspired and it resonated with us for our journey home.
A scene that is very simplistic – just characters talking in a room – does not work with poor writing, so it really let the script shine. That intimate, stripped down writing style with a simple yet effective set and the actors’ use of silences speaks volumes of Charlie Josephine’s talent.
While the play ‘explores themes of gender expression’, this was done non-confrontationally. The writing showed how people who are homo/trans-phobic are not inherently evil, but people with deep-rooted beliefs. Frank was a pacifist, who built the saloon and town to be a racially equal non-violent apolitical family, with mostly good intentions rather than an antagonist for the sake of an antagonist. This character development was seen across the board, and created a full, raw, realistic atmosphere.
The arrival of the husbands was a tense, enticing end to act one, and their traditional attitudes of course had us seething. The performance of Shaun Dingwall alongside his companions Michael Elcock, Colm Gormley and Julian Moore-Cook truly astonished us; the latter three of course going on to change their views later on in the play.
LJ Parkinson was a brilliant comic relief in the role of Charley Parkhurst, and their thick Yorkshire accent added to the grittily humorous tone of the role.
Perhaps the most gripping part in act two was Paul Hunter’s portrayal as Sheriff Roger Jones. When the sheriff first went sober we were so proud, and succumbing to his alcoholism hit hard and had us in tears. A standout performance from Paul Hunter. Seeing older queer people is always very meaningful because the queer community has been subjected to so much persecution that, back in the day, people were usually either desperately closeted, attacked, killed or imprisoned so it impacts us as young queer people a lot to see someone middle-aged represented and also happy. We like that the play shows how much better people are when they no longer have to hide.
The music was not directly necessary because it was never used as an explicit vehicle for the plot, but it was a nice touch. The first act started with a very traditional song and ended with something very modern and that showed Jack’s role of being the instigator of change had the same modern music.
This good symbolism was reinforced by the changes in costume throughout the show. The shameless use of colour in some of the costumes, representing the breaking of gender roles while keeping in touch with the Cowboy era, caught our eyes in every scene. As well, details like the husbands’ neckerchiefs matching the dresses of their wives reflected the Wild West roles of men and women – men to hold the power of the relationship close to themself, and the women following suit and being subservient. Grace Smart’s design kept us connected with the story in a beautifully symbolic way.
The very traditional masculine staple of the genre – a shoot-out in a saloon – was also the scene where the queer characters are accepted. This felt a well-rounded end to the story.
In summary, Cowbois successfully weaves archaic movie tropes with modern queer themes to create a visually striking and emotionally resonant performance. With a stellar cast, nuanced character development, and subtle yet powerful symbolism in costumes and music, the play delivers a thought-provoking message of acceptance and self-realisation. The climactic saloon scene serves as a fitting conclusion, leaving the audience with a lasting impression of the power of change and inclusivity. This production is a must-see for those seeking a captivating and thought-provoking theatrical experience.
Cowbois plays at the Swan Theatre until the 18th November. Tickets available here.
Photography from Henri T (c) RSC