Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cowbois at the Swan Theatre – review

Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes’ queer Western runs until 18 November

Sophie Melville and Vinnie Heaven in a scene from Cowbois at the RSC's Swan Theatre
Sophie Melville and Vinnie Heaven in Cowbois, © RSC / Henri T

There’s a sign hanging up over the bar in Frank’s saloon in this midwest town in 1880s America: ‘No guns, no politics.’ Like pretty much everywhere else in this rumbustious production, the rules are ignored with resolute abandon.

Cowbois must have looked a risky proposition on paper. Taking the tropes of every Western film you’ve ever seen, it turns them gleefully on their heads when outlaw Jack Cannon wanders into town to find the womenfolk fending for themselves after their men have gone off for months in search of gold. For Jack is not all he seems.

What follows is the emancipation of the entire town, allowing everyone from the child-hating teacher to the alcoholic sheriff the chance to explore their true selves… only for the hardbitten prospectors to return, expecting everything to be just as it was when they left.

Programmed by outgoing acting artistic director Erica Whyman, it’s a fitting tribute to her boldness and wisdom in commissioning a show that might, on the face of it, have seemed alarming for the RSC’s core Stratford audience. Forget all that: it’s a riotous piece of theatre that provides joyous representation of nonbinary characters (and actors) without ever seeming preachy or defensive.

And it’s an even greater tribute to writer and co-director Charlie Josephine – a former Mercutio on the RSC’s main stage – that the show carries a confident swagger, never doubting its entitlement to be in this space, as well as a knowing sense of humour and plenty of good old-fashioned gun-slinging action. Its tongue remains firmly in its cheek, but it has the added bonus of making the audience complicit in its subversive attitudes and wicked twinkle.

The cast are wonderfully diverse, in all kinds of ways, and they’re clearly having a ball. Sophie Melville relishes every moment of her turn as Frank’s wife, holding the fort in his absence, while debutant Lee Braithwaite, as a downtrodden spouse discovering their identity, is a talent to watch.

Josephine shares directing credits with Sean Holmes, whose experience lends a guiding path through the ups and downs of the story, and while the tone feels uneven in places and there are some real problems with sight lines when the stage is as crowded as it often is, there’s also a clear sense of purpose and a strong overall vision for the project.

In an odd way, there’s also a sense of a work in progress, with some ideas seemingly unfinished or left hanging, and a scattergun approach to targets ranging from immigration to religious bigotry. Some tightening up and bedding in might be helpful for any future life – and there really should be a future life for this brilliantly queer and radical reframing of the cowboy archetype. Not only is it a queer story that’s uplifting rather than grim, it’s also fun, it’s anarchic and it challenges your thinking in the best way that theatre can.