REVIEW: ‘Cowbois’ @ RSC’s Swan Theatre – a rollicking queer Western

Catherine Muxworthy October 24, 2023

Described as “A rollicking queer Western like nothing you’ve seen before”, Cowbois is a new play written by Charlie Josephine and co-directed by Charlie and Sean Holmes for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Set in a sleepy Wild West town, the women who live there are almost entirely cut off from outsiders, with only a drunken sheriff for protection, while their husbands are away seeking treasures in the goldrush, and all but assumed dead. Until, that is, the handsome and swaggeringly sexy bandit, Jack Cannon arrives in the saloon looking for a place to lay low while the rest of the world – bounty hunters, rivals, and the law – are hot on his pursuit.

Jack’s explosive entrance into their lives soon inspires a queer awakening and a gender revolution for every one of the town’s repressed inhabitants. An exploration of gender expression, identity, sexuality, masculinity, power and freedom, Cowbois is in many ways a reclamation of the word ‘queer. In Charlie Josephine’s words, it is also: “a love letter to the trans masculine people in history whose stories have been ignored or erased.”

Jack Cannon leads the narrative with an enigmatic confidence and draw, both for the audience and the characters around him, ensuring that transness is celebrated with fun music and dance numbers, passionate love stories and queer joy. The violence of Wild West is juxtaposed perfectly with tenderness and intimacy, while sharp humour and innuendo bring a new campy twist to a Western story.

This play uses simple but effective staging that showcases the saloon on the stage itself and makes use of the whole theatre for an immersive experience with an edge of your seat ending. When the costumes switch from drab dull colours, to bright, glittering and camp ‘Dolly Parton-esque’ cowboy attire it becomes clear to the audience that the characters have embraced this whole new world of expression but, of course, their tale does not end there.

Armed with everything you’d expect to find in a Western – gun-slinging lone rangers, action-packed quick draws and shoot-outs, and heated bar brawls – this joyful and bold tale of resistance, queer love and gender expression is an exciting new take on the Western genre.

Starring Vinnie Heaven as the bandit Jack Cannon, Sophie Melville as Miss Lillian, Lee Braithwaite as Lucy/Lou, Brigette Amofah as Mary, Paul Hunter as Sheriff Roger Jones, Lucy McCormick as Jayne, Emily Pallant as Sally Ann, and LJ Parkinson AKA the drag king LoUis CYfer as Charley Parkhurst, Cowbois runs at RSC’s Swan Theatre until November 18. Tickets are on sale now.

Photos by Henri T © RSC