“Cowbois” at Royal Court Theatre

Tom Bolton in west London
19 January 2024

Transferring from Stratford-upon-Avon, Charlie Josephine’s queer fantasy Western Cowbois breezes into town in a cyclone of colour and exuberance. We are in a nowhere town, somewhere out west. All the men have left to prospect for gold and they have been gone a long time, leaving just the women and the boozed-up sheriff. When the dangerous, sharp-shooting, irresistibly hot outlaw Jack arrives on the run everyone gets very excited. Jack is not just any outlaw, but flamboyant, gender-fluid, and irresistible. Strict schoolmarms, farm girls, uptight Bible-bashers, and respectable married women all find themselves casting social expectations aside and expressing their true selves. Then the men return.


The ensemble. Photo credit: Ali Wright.


Cowbois is in many ways a joyful experience. The idea of using the Western genre setting to upend attitudes to gender roles is clever. Cowboy stories are packed with stereotypes, and there is satisfaction in seeing these undermined: the sheriff in a dress, a young woman shaving her head, everyone donning wildly colourful Stetsons and silk outfits – triumphant costume design by Grace Smart, who also designed the neat bar-room set. Co-directed by Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes, with movement by Jennifer Jackson, the production flows beautifully, from energetic set-piece dance sequences to small, neat touches, such as Jack whisking a teaspoon from a saucer as though they are drawing a Colt.

The most enjoyable aspect of Cowbois, however, is a series of very entertaining performances. The show is expertly cast, including performers more often seen on fringe stages. Chief among these is the much-loved, under-appreciated Paul Hunter, of Told by an Idiot fame. Remarkably, he last performed with the RSC 20 years ago. His beautiful, subtle, brilliantly physical performance as the sheriff is sheer delight. Vinnie Heaven is both super-cool and loveable as Jack. Sophie Melville’s bar-owner Lillian slides into an amusing sexual trance when she meets Jack. LJ Parkinson plays bounty hunter Charley with comic timing and explosive relish. And Lucy McCormick, better known for her provocative solo shows, gives the teacher Jayne a remarkable level of swivel-eyed mania. The evening has a cabaret atmosphere, with performers delivering turns to raucous audience approval.


The ensemble. Photo credit: Ali Wright.


However, Cowbois also has some significant limitations. It is too long, with a first half that seems to mark time, and a sex scene between Jack and Lillian, in a pool revealed beneath the stage, that goes on for a long time. More importantly, there is a feeling that, while the show is an admirable celebration of gender difference, it does not tell us much that we do not already know. Despite aiming to undermine expectations, everything turns out the way we would expect. Baddies are baddies, and people who are good at heart come round in the end. The music also seems under-powered. The show keeps threatening to turn into a musical, but the big numbers are not there.

The link-up between the RSC and the English Stage Company is promising. Cowbois appears to be the first Stratford production to play at the Royal Court, and suits the main stage very well. If the RSC can commission the kind of plays the Royal Court wants to stage, everyone wins. Cowbois has all the right intentions. The message that people can escape their designated roles and be what they want still needs to be shouted from the rooftops, and the RSC has a megaphone. Although flawed, Cowbois is both enjoyable and memorable, helping to give important mainstream recognition to the queer fringe performance scene.