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Cowbois, Royal Court review: this queer subversion of the Wild West is a delight but needs serious reining in

From left, Colm Gormley, Emma Pallant, Michael Elcock, Shaun Dingwall, Lucy McCormick, Sophie Melville and Julian Moore-Cook in Cowbois (Ali Wright)
From left, Colm Gormley, Emma Pallant, Michael Elcock, Shaun Dingwall, Lucy McCormick, Sophie Melville and Julian Moore-Cook in Cowbois (Ali Wright)

This baggily playful, queer subversion of Wild West tropes is a delight up until the interval. After that, it collapses into an aimless, interminable mess. It’s written by Charlie Josephine, who controversially but deliciously imagined Joan of Arc as non-binary in I, Joan at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2022.

At first, Cowbois mirrors that play’s impish humanity. In a western town where almost all the men are absent, prospecting for gold and presumed dead, the women have already transcended traditional roles.

The arrival of ravishing, trans masculine outlaw Jack (Vinnie Heaven), in a wildly impractical white and red dude suit, triggers a more profound rethink of identity and sexuality. Especially for saloon-keeper Miss Lillian (Sophie Melville, captivating), whose attraction to Jack is so strong it generates a miracle. Their bathtub sex-scene, shot in ponderous blue-lit snippets, is where things start to deteriorate, like a gyroscope winding down

The first half of the play is wry and knowing, This town is a utopia where white and black families live together and the saloon policy specifies “No Guns, No Politics” but is always host to both. The actors use their native English, Irish or Welsh accents. Jim Fortune’s easygoing western songs, played by an onstage quartet, lead to an outbreak of fabulous-costumed, genderqueer line-dancing. Then the men come back.

Sophie Melville and Vinnie Heaven in Cowbois (Ali Wright)
Sophie Melville and Vinnie Heaven in Cowbois (Ali Wright)

Having got to this flashpoint, Josephine clearly doesn’t know what to do. There are predictable confrontations about gender, sexuality and race. Permutations of rejection and resentment are ponderously played out. The play becomes discursive, then desperate.

Josephine introduces a deus ex machina – a green-haired, Midlands-accented drag-king gunfighter called Charley – to literally trigger a denouement. But there’s still a seemingly endless, jokey shootout to endure, and some baffling dance sequences, before we get to the final message that everyone should be allowed to be who they want to be and love who they want to love, actually.

Cowbois is co-directed by Josephine and Sean Holmes. The latter should have issued a judicious “whoa” or “giddy-up” to curb the excesses and longueurs, or seized the reins altogether when things went out of control.

The show represents a pivot point. It’s the last production from the old regime at the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose new artistic directors announced their forthcoming programme this week, which largely ignores London.

Cowbois has been bustled into the Royal Court, which is also changing leadership and has announced disastrous figures for the past year. Josephine’s play is affirming and charming, but in its current, loose state, it looks like the kind of indulgence the sector can’t afford any more.

Royal Court Theatre, to February 10; royalcourttheatre.com