Tom Bolton in north London
23 January 2023
Chloe Rice and Natasha Roland are New York-based performers, a two-person company who have made their way to Islington via a short but fêted run at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe which won them a coveted Fringe First Award. Their unclassifiable show And Then the Rodeo Burned Down now has a well-deserved long booking at the King’s Head Theatre. They bring a strong sense of Edinburgh summer excitement to dark January London, with a boundary-dissolving show that combines physical theatre, writing, and music to enchant and confound the audience.
Natasha Roland and Chloe Rice.
The tiny King’s Head stage is configured in the round with a lone star painted on the floor, the entirety of the set. Rice and Roland, in cowboy gear, are apparently part of a rodeo show, where Rice works as the Rodeo Comedian. Roland is her shadow, then the lead cowboy, then a horse. The rodeo is “the best place in the world” Rice keeps telling us, but the cowboy is an arrogant prick, the horse is trying to escape rodeo animal abuse, and she is put firmly in her place. Rice says she does not need a shadow, but Roland follows her around anyway, matching her gestures while taking a persistent interest in whether cowboys are allowed to kiss one another.
The scenario is weird, like an acid-fuelled American nightmare with all the right pieces, but in the wrong order. A lighter keeps appearing, the lighting is blood red, and the music is all about fire. Then the lights go out. The performers step out of their roles, and admit they have not thought the plot through and are short of the funds they need to finish. The construct collapses and we are left with the reality of fringe performers, struggling to make ends meet, personally, creatively, and financially.
Chloe Rice (foreground) and Natasha Roland.
Rice and Roland are fine physical performers and, while the first half of the show leaves the audience hanging to some extent, their interaction is a joy to watch. They twirl, tumble, and twist in perfect synchronicity, moving as one. Roland dogs Rice, matching her actions with eerie prescience and great charm. Then, as the cowboy, she turns on the masculine arrogance which crackles through her cigarette, this being something that embodies her rodeo status. Their skits have the feel of Laurel and Hardy silent comedy routines set loose in a Western dreamscape.
The show is punctuated with songs: Johnny Cash, Miley Cyrus, and Dolly Parton, whose ‘9 to 5’ bookends the evening. This is the key to some of what is going on. The rodeo is a microcosm of the unequal dynamics of the workplace, and the fringe stage in particular, where gender roles dictate what people can be, and how much power they are allowed.
Gender is at the heart of the show, which features two queer female performers playing a series of men in stereotypical male roles, before unravelling their roles. With pretence finally stripped away Roland and Rice eventually play themselves, and their personal dynamic is real and delightful. As a stage couple, their interaction is the show’s greatest strength and the way they physically respond to one another is a pleasure to watch. As themselves, they can build something that does not need permission from anyone. As Dolly puts it, “You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder / but you got dreams he’ll never take away.” Roland and Rice never work out how to end the show, or whether the rodeo burned down at all, but they know where they put the lighter.