Review: Cowbois at the Royal Court ★★★★

Review: Cowbois at the Royal Court ★★★★

As a queering of the cowboy genre, Cowbois alternates scenes of conventionality and – thankfully – exhilarating, trans-positive energy.

Way, way back in 2012, we absolutely loved Charlie Josephine’s breakout hit Bitch Boxer – which took first the Edinburgh Fringe, then Soho Theatre, and then the Edinburgh Fringe again (!) by storm. A star was truly born, and we’ve been keeping a close eye on Josephine’s work ever since.

Along with 2022’s I, Joan, Josephine’s latest, Cowbois, appears to signal an arrival into the big league. An RSC production which premiered in Stratford, this Royal Court transfer feels like a real moment, the acclamation of a star truly ascendent.

The story: we’re in the Wild West, where the women – and one drunken sheriff – of an isolated settlement await the return of the husbands lost to a search for gold. Then lone bandit Jack Cannon rocks up to the town’s saloon, on the run from bounty hunters after a heist gone wrong. Cannon isn’t all that they initially seem, however, and soon their arrival triggers a gender revolution – until the patriarchy arrive back in town.

Some shade: It’s a pity that the powerful messaging and exhilarating, joyous queerness of Cowbois is often tempered by a tendency to speak a hundred words when ten might do just fine.

That’s not to say that the script itself is too baggy, but rather that some of the direction and performance choices have the effect of making this feel like a 90 minute joy-ride slowed down and stretched – at times – dangerously close to the point of tedium.

A couple of the individual performances suffer from being played, seemingly, for a completely different production. This will mightily entertain some in the audience, while alienating others. It’s a lesson in louder not always meaning better, and leaves on wishing for a little more nuance.

Ok, that’s the grumpiness out of the way. The truth is that while Cowbois treads a dangerous line – particularly in its first half – of playing things somehow both too straight and too broad, the generosity of spirit and urgent exuberance of the second half just about wins the day. Sophie Melville appears to visibly relax into the central role of Miss Lillian, who falls for the mysterious Jack Cannon (a charmingly played ‘good bad-guy’ played by Vinnie Heaven) in the absence of her husband, even while the stakes are raised. Lee Braithwaite exudes a seemingly effortless, magnetic stage presence in their debut performance. And while Lucy McCormick’s performance veers too far towards caricature, LJ Parkinson channels similar energy towards delivering a masterclass in scene-stealing, scenery-chewing, high-camp gloriousness.

The staging is simple but, for what it is, effective – and the climactic gunfight is both exciting and hilarious. There is music from a lively but sadly well-hidden live band, though none of the songs in this play-with-music is really catchy enough to have you humming on the way out. The messaging, though, should stick: it might feel a little blunt at times, but the story nicely relates the importance of accepting people for who and what they are.