Jessica Harris watches this production at the RSC.
Some great comic performances, strong singing and dancing, and an array of cowboy and cowgirl outfits in all colours of the rainbow carry this piece along. But the energy and exuberance of the cast is let down at times by a script that is scrappy in parts, and occasionally over-baked.
As a vehicle for exploring sexuality and gender identity, the setting of a Wild West saloon bar sometime in the past works well. The men are away from town digging for gold and trying to earn a buck or two. The women are left at home, dealing with both the humdrum (whether to have salt or sugar on your grits – or, queerly, even both) and the exceptional (how to shoot a horse that has gone lame).
Into their lives walks Jack Cotton – red fringed shirt, white trousers, stylish boots, hat and all: an outlaw through his deeds and an outlaw through his non-conformist gender. Sensual and non-binary, Jack’s presence is the trigger that allows the women to be authentic, to explore their own identities, and to adopt behaviours and clothing of the gender that feels right for them. The sheriff, the only man left behind, also responds by donning the silk petticoats that he has longed to feel against his skin. There is joy, love and affinity in the community.
The second act brings everything back down to earth with a bump. The men return, and so does ‘normality’, Threatened by the ‘masculine’ qualities the women have adopted, and unnerved when some of their number start to express their feelings, they try to reclaim the territory through ridicule, control and violence.
And so the Wild West framing allows for norms to be challenged, for trans and non-binary genders to be played out. As the returning men begin to accept that things have changed during their absence, so a space is opened up for people of all diversities to be celebrated. The setting is also a reminder that gender fluidity has been around forever and, in many historical times and settings, acknowledged and accepted.
But the script loses its tightness in the second act, as characters start to speechify, as themes of immigration are thrown in but not developed, and as a shoot-out with a band of outlaws belies the notion that the community has found a new and harmonious way of living.
There are some strong performances in the show. Lucy McCormick gives a wonderfully melodramatic performance as Jayne, Sophie Melville is a formidable Miss Lilian whom few would mess with, whilst Emma Pallant as Sally Ann plays this stiff and formal character with enjoyable innuendo. Vinnie Heaven as Jack has a fine singing voice but doesn’t provide the stage presence needed for this pivotal role. Paul Hunter as the drunken Sheriff and LJ Parkinson as the ostentatious Charley Parkhurst both give strong comedic performances.
Costumes dazzle, and song and dance numbers contribute to a rich spectacle. In all, a flawed but enjoyable show.
Cowbois was written by Charlie Josephine, and co-directed by Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes. It plays at the RSC, Stratford until 18th November. For further information visit rsc.org.uk.
Pics – Henri T (c) RSC.