Review: Midlife Cowboy (Pleasance Theatre)
Tony Hawks brings a western musical to north London
Foot-stomping, heart-soaring, guitar-strumming western musicals are a bit of a rarity these days – you don't see many cowboy hats being sported on major UK stages. Radio 4 regular Tony Hawks has seemingly gone on a one-man mission to rectify the situation: producing, writing, directing and starring in this new show at the Pleasance in London.
The piece follows country-loving duo Stuart (Hawks) and Jane (Debra Stephenson) as their marriage hits a snag – apparently Stuart can only be romantic when dressed up in his knee-high boots and a flannel shirt, role-playing as his alter-ego "The Heartbreak Kid". Jane has had enough – roping in a trio of country-loving friends to help win a local talent show, which will apparently solve years of tension in their marriage.
Starting with the good bits – Edward Lidster's design is gorgeous, especially some farmhand paraphernalia suspended from the ceiling, silhouetted by Ben Jacobs' atmospheric, dazzling lighting. There's also a couple of stellar performances from James Thackeray as a young country music lover Dan and Georgina Field as an eccentric, Swindon-loving ukulele player Penny, who give Stuart and Jane the edge in the impending competition.
But for someone who cut his teeth on entertaining the masses on the wireless, it's remarkable just how consistently un-funny Hawks' show is. A few gags land, but it all feels a bit staid – these are unexciting, oddball characters who are all solidly okay at a lifelong hobby. The energy gets a much-needed boost as act two continues, but for the most part, this is a stilted script that could have benefited from some hefty cuts and a shorter runtime – a lot of Stephenson's mournful solo numbers are gallingly repetitive.
Hawks tries to have his cake and eat it – piecing together a naturalistic drama while also attempting to present a quirky, off-the-wall comedy caper. Indulging in the show's eccentricities may have been more fruitful and made the premise a bit more appetising – but by dialing up some characters to 11 while keeping others mundane, the piece's energy and pacing are all thrown. As it stands, the production often feels like watching a few people chat in a garage with some musical interludes and a half-hearted line dance.