cowbois top pic

Sophie Melville as Miss Lillian and Vinnie Heaven as Jack Cannon. Pictures: Henri T


The Royal Shakespeare Company



There’s a lot of wry fun, delicious irony and – as you’d expect - smart footwork in the RSC’s latest offering, Cowbois. Treat it as straightforward, dyed-in-the-wool comedy and it works rather well, from the very beginning - a gaggle of deliciously frenetic, overacting women, fretting about anything and nothing – to the arresting arrival of their men for the second half, to the dotty denouement and finale. 

Yes, at its best it’s jolly funny.

Any idea of trying to claim for it some serious point is ludicrous. ‘Female husbands... Anyone can put on men’s clothes and change their name. Transing gender is something else, something so much more.’

Cowbois purports, in self-promoting, to highlight gay and trans issues. Frankly, apart from some sudden girl-girl attaching at the very close, that’s hooey. Skimming across the surface, it addresses nothing. ‘A queer world?’ Five minutes of Brokeback Mountain prised out more than two hours of this self-satisfied programme drivel.

But Cowbois does provide entertainment. A lot of it. Emma Pallant as the frightfully proper, pink-enriched Sally Ann (she/her) and especially Lucy McCormick’s (she/her) horrified, judgmental, fan-flapping Jayne both offer us something very close to Restoration Comedy. Sophie Melville (she/her) is an inspiration as the feisty, then up for it, barmaid, Miss Lillian. Bridgette Amofah (she/her), gorgeously clad to the toes in amber-yellow, is pure joy every time she speaks. A really commanding presence. There’s some tip top, clever if OTT acting from this ensemble. Fine actresses all, they hold us in the palm of their hands. Both Jayne and Sally Ann are given vibrant, dotty solo outbursts. They’re both brilliant. Mouthwateringly funny.

same again

Miss Lillian and Jack, again, presumably honing their first aid skills by practising mouth to mouth resuscitation

As for the she/hers (see above), which are inflicted on us in the programme, they’re pure RSC politically correct overkill. Do we really need to know that the wonderful, indeed hilarious Sheriff Jones (Paul Hunter) is a ‘he/him’? 14 of the 16 cast are identified as one sex or the other above. Pretty obvious. But the RSC – scared? Morally superior? Know-it-all? - is determined to rub our noses in it.

Hurrah, rather, for the two identified as either ‘they/them’ (the splendid Vinnie Heaven, playing the all-but title role of bandit Jack; and the endlessly touching Lee Braithwaite, ‘Lucy and/or Lou’, who is dubbed ‘they/he’. Yes, let’s stand up for them, in admiration. But all this additional froth (Creatives too; of 23, just two identify, to similar credit, like Jack and Lou): well, make up your own mind. 

But let’s wave the flag too. Grace Smart’s designs were pure rapture. A single, straightforward, neatly-stocked mid-West bar at the rear, eye-catching, and that was all we needed. Applause for well-judged understatement. Her costumes were, without exception, terrific (Sian Harris is i/c.); even the cowpokes’ when they arrive. There was nothing gay about Jack, apart from his glorious red-tinged white outfit (more delicious Lone Ranger than rustler) that would have set a few hearts throbbing on a gay pride march.

And as if to prove it, the big (event) in the script is the lusted-after Jack doing just that – poking the bar owner, Frank’s wife. Lighting Designer Simeon Miller served up plenty of goodies during the evening, but his fabulous glaring white, almost neon effect as Jack and Lillian have it off embraced by a front stage trapdoor, added so much to this undeniably heterosexual event.

While Vinnie, Sophie and Simeon ran off with the honours in this, for any watchers, spellbinding sequence, the actual managing of it scarcely did.  Co-directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes scored for the comedy, as they did so often in this sometimes knockout show, the more so as it progressed towards the rip-roaring end, but their playing of the sex romp might have gained from more realism in what was a kind of fruity collage. Urgency, stripping, thrusting of sorts, may have been on the menu, but our boyo might as well not have had a cock for all the attention he (or she) gave it.

When slender Jack first entered, he was slim almost to disappearing, fey, flimsy, weedy. Was that the trans idea? That a boy virtually as poofy, certainly posey, as him – though no Ben Whishaw he - might transmogrify into shagging the landlord’s Mrs.? But if not overwhelming for stage presence, there was an undoubted appeal to Vinnie: even better, one learned, dropping his voice than dropping his trousers. And when he transited into performing musical solos (Composer: Jim Fortune) soft-timbred Jack really began to shine.


Guns and poses in the saloon with Shaun Dingwall as Frank, Colm Gormley as John

Anyway, Frank (the superb Shaun Dingwall, a huge stage presence: ‘I built this bar with my own hands; we built this house together’) wasn’t too pleased to find out his impending offspring wasn’t his. The storyline benefited from Frank being both admirable, rather noble, if forceful, and quite frightening: Colm Gormley as Sally Ann’s (the constantly inventive Pallant’s) man offset Dingwall aptly. The fact they were both utterly decent fellers, senior blokes, with some depth to them and even a kind of (probably) uneducated wisdom, plus sensitivity – they sniff that something is ‘going on’ - gave strength to the male-female second half which succeeded the essentially feminine first. However, if an animated (well acted, decently spoken) moral debate between the men was intended to tack on a sort of ‘serious issue’, it didn’t.

Actually – despite the structural weakness of its virtual elision of Jack - the second part never looked back: tip top from start to finish. While the brilliant, largely hilarious, pouting facial antics of Lucy McCormick may have owed a great deal to her own insuppressible invention – even if her not very believable transitioning right at the close contributed nothing - the Directors produced a real hit by turning Paul Hunter’s Sheriff into a comic figure on a par with the RSC’s (i.e. Shakespeare’s) very best. Bewildered Sally Ann has some of the best one-liners: ‘Can someone explain to me what’s happening? Well may she ask.

Here a delicious paradox: dressing up at different stages in (different) kinky white costumes, nicely empathetic Sheriff Roger evolved, tongue-in-cheek, into a pansy poseur who left one hunting with opera glasses for his suspenders. The Sheriff’s outward propriety and loyalty – you could see it was difficult not to spill the beans about Jack and Lillian - together with her own scarlet-clad blossoming bizarre pregnancy, did a lot to help keep this outwardly promising show on an even keel. 

Highest praise to the two youngest cast members. Lee Braithwaite has worked their way through a number of roles while training at Lamda; plus earlier parts with the NYT. The gentleness of the voice (classified as tenor, indeed an appealing, delicate light tenor) and of his whole persona made him ideal for the (deliberately near-indistinguishable) Lucy/Lou role(s) – whatever they meant (‘I ain’t no lady’). The main difference seemed to be green-brown trousers under a green-brown ankle-length dress.

Lee has (have) done Goldoni, Chekhov and Shakespeare (Romeo, no surprise there; Dogberry – huge surprise there). ‘Still finding my feet in this crazy world of film!’ Braithwaite’s potential could be vast. It will need work. Well done the RSC on recruiting them at least for this.

And yes, the littlest. Usual to credit the whole alternating trio: Robert Addi, Aiden Cole, Alastair Ngwenya. We signed up Aiden and gathered him to our bosom. A super little performer, working as a brilliant team with (his mum) Bridgette Amofah’s Mary (I think her example has taught him a lot): chirpy, respectful, a real sense of timing that deserves our admiration. Aiden’s intelligence and brightness showed with every move, and every utterance.  

But the brilliant final stages, insane chasearound and wind-up were sheer glory. The versatile Lights again caught the mood ideally. An Oscar Wilde muddle; a Shakespearean (Comedy of Errors) unravelling. Cowbois ended as Pantomime, and one sensed that is exactly what it had really been about all through. Great comedy. Forget the pseudo-serious thin veneer.   

Roderic Dunnett


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