FringeReview UK 2024
Cranford’s gone Wild West, via the Court and RSC. Cowbois is of course daft. But it’s magnificent in its silliness, contains wonderful – and truthful – moments. It’s glorious and lights up January, in a way recalling the exhilaration of Sound of the Underground on this stage a year ago. Deadly serious can have you rolling in the aisles and still jump up for the revolution.
Written by Charlie Josephine, Co-directed by at the Royal Court by Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes, Designed by Grace Smart, Lighting Design Simeon Miller, Music Jim Fortune, Sounds and Soundscape Designer Mwen, Movement Director Jennifer Jackson, Fights and Intimacy Bethan Clark, Dramaturg Rebecca Latham
Music Director Gemma Storr, Voice and Text Gary Horner, Dramatherapist Wabriya King, Assistant Director Prime Isaac, Casting Director Martin Poile, Children’s Casting Director Charlie Metcalf.
Head of New Work Pippa Hill, CSM Cheryl Furth, DSM Grace Hans, ASM Roni Neale, Lead Chaperone Diane Ford, Production Co-Ordinator Jade Parkin, Producer Ben Tyreman.
Till February 10th
Cranford’s gone Wild West, via the Court and RSC. At least that’s how Charlie Josephine’s Cowbois – co-directed by at the Royal Court by them and Sean Holmes till February 10th – opens. It stays that way deliciously long enough for the explosion of stays, Stetsons, petticoats and pantaloons to register small-town revolution.
It’s glorious and lights up January, in a way recalling the exhilaration of Sound of the Underground on this stage a year ago. Though accidental – Dana H had to cancel – might such joyous TransJanuary shows become a defiant feature of dark days? I’m putting in that plea now.
In I, Joan at the Globe featuring the stunning debut of Isobel Thom, Josephine stayed broadly in the 15th century: historical narrative was enough to play against. Cowbois though invokes a 19th century world that barely existed and for far less time than the film genre throwing up all those tropes that makes this a rootin’-tootin’ romp.
There’s rollicking and elegiac music by Jim Fortune (shout to onstage musicians Yue Miyagi, Ruth Hayden, Joelle Barker), an evocative soundscape by Mwen on an identikit wild west bar set with stairs and use of the gallery (and gallimaufry of rainbow costumes) by Grace Smart. And spectacularly lit by Simeon Miller with darkness plunged after striking blue-lighting on a sex-scene that’s really a ballet in a bath. Used once, this cellarage really is luxury casting.
Josephine’s women – as they all are at the start – really do move and look as if from BBC’s Cranford. Their menfolk left a year ago for yet another gold rush and haven’t been heard of since. Ennui yawns so much they’re about to disappear pining through the floorboards. With everyone speaking in their own British or Irish accents it’s inn-owner Lillian (Sophie Melville) up against the tiniest swerve from the norm.
Where Jayne (Lucy McCormick) and Lucy (Lee Braithwaite, later Lou) and Sally-Ann (Emma Pallant) all converge on Miss Lillian’s shocking preference for plain grits or porridge over salt (Sally-Ann), sugar (Jayne) and both (Lucy). That’s a metaphor soon to sing their sexualities if you’d not guessed.
Nominally protected by good-natured if hopeless drunk Sheriff Roger Jones (Paul Hunter) and joined by Mary (Bridgette Amofah) and her Kid (Alexander Joseph on this occasion), Melville’s languorous pose expresses them all.
The only thing to excite them is Jack Cannon (Vinnie Heaven) who’s on the loose (we get that too) and marauding the countryside, indeed seducing women: exciting posses of good men to hunt him down. But him? Really? Jack’s brother has died and there’s hidden loot to be claimed too. But everyone agrees Jack ain’t what they seem. And Jack soon fetches up.
Wondering how to kill them, Lillian soon falls instead and we’re gifted a joyous long consummation in underwear that threatens to become a bath-fight: a paean from Jennifer Jackson’s movement and Bethan Clark (fight and intimacy).
Biology unbends impossibly in something miraculous. And soon everyone unbends and discovers themselves or their selves as them: Lucy, now Lou and Jayne, Sheriff in silks, and costumes that blaze affirmation.
Then – the end of Act One’s a real coup when all seemed to be unravelling into festival.
Heaven is well heavenly. Just watch them stir – draw – a cup with a whip-out teaspoon for Melville: it’s Jack and sexy to a T. It’s a role too that’s a super-cool catalyst to generate wild responses from others, particularly Melville who registers every pitch of her transformation, every later shock of fear, ecstasy and dismay, indeed terror as the forces of darkness pitch up against them all. Melville brings weight and potential heartbreak. Amofah, often the more laconic observer speaks with riveting good sense and sings gloriously towards the end; and Joseph is outstanding as Kid.
There’s affecting chemistry between liberated Jayne in McCormick’s quite complex role and Braithwaite’s Lucy. Jayne’s someone breaking out with a sometimes selfish violence against her constraint but defiant when forced to drink. Braithwaite’s Lucy bursts bonds from the start: shooting a broken-legged horse (can’t wait a year for a man to do it) and seems far more comfortable in their new togs. Indeed at one point constrained to dance traditionally it’s McCormick who exhibits just how alien this dance-form is to everyone now and explodes into a hip-rippling routine. Hunter’s affecting too as reformed alcoholic Sheriff liberated to days of white satin.
There’s strong performances later from Shawn Dingwall as Lillian’s absentee but bullying husband Frank and as mean bounty-hunter Tommy, Michael Elcock’s more emollient George, Julia Moore-Cock’s baffled James and Colm Gormley’s avuncular John. And a surprise in the other sharp-shooter Charley Parkhurst (LJ Parkinson). Josephine’s taken some trouble to differentiate denouement and daft shoot-outs with some surprising recruits to the new cause.
Cowbois is of course daft. Plot’s waffle-thin and the end’s a spoof riffed as a farce ripping a celebration from the real dark forces this production more than hints at. But it’s magnificent in its silliness, contains wonderful – and truthful – moments, singing and performances: and reminds us of a curious truth.
Along with Sound of the Underground and taking in Michael Wynne’s comedy Cuckoo – Vicky Featherstone’s surprise directorial swansong here – Cowbois isn’t just one of the funniest but also almost the best thing one takes away from Downstairs productions over the past year or so. With the exception of Alistair McDowall’s All Of It earnest Court works haven’t fared as well. There’s an importance there. Deadly serious can have you rolling in the aisles and still jump up for the revolution.