Cowbois review – Royal Court Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Sophie Melville in Cowbois. Photo: Ali Wright

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Charlie Josephine’s new play Cowbois rolls into town, transferring to the Royal Court Theatre and solving a gap in the London theatre’s programme following the cancellation of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. as a result of lead actress Deirdre O’Connell being unavailable for the run.

Josephine’s play subverts usual Wild West tropes while maintaining the recognisable swagger of the genre. The Western sees the women of a sleepy small town left to their own devices with all of the town’s men, bar the drunken sheriff Roger (Paul Hunter), having been swept up in the gold rush. The men have been missing for a year, possibly dead following a mine explosion in the area where they had gone in search of their fortune.

The cast of Cowbois. Photo: Ali Wright

Things in the town have become somewhat strained in the men’s absence, with calm-headed saloon-keep Miss Lillian (Sophie Melville) stepping in as the de facto leader to keep a lid on the type of animosity that begins to brew when the only things to think about are the small and irrelevant. That changes with the arrival of the outlaw bandit Jack Cannon (Vinnie Heaven) who rides into town and blows away the town’s cobwebs and its ideas of gender and sexuality norms with them.

Soon neutral-toned buckskins and petticoats make way for flash extravagance, as the women find themselves and a new way of life. It’s a tremendous first act, full of laughs and drama as the transmasculine Jack brings the women around to his way of thinking, even if they don’t quite have the name for words new frontier – they’re not trans, they’re just themselves. Whether it will all last is called into question as the men suddenly arrive home, unscathed, penniless and unsure about what they’ve just walked back into, while Jack’s past finally catches up with him.

Sophie Melville and Vinnie Heaven in Cowbois. Photo: Ali Wright

It makes for a less coherent second half with Josephine and Sean Holmes, who each co-direct, losing some of the momentum. Running at 2 hours and 40 minutes, there would have been room to tighten the second act with the transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon to London the perfect time to have done so. It requires the arrival of the one-eyed outlaw Charley Parkhurst (LJ Parkinson) midway through the act to spark life back into the play. It leads to a glorious climactic shootout that is strangely uplifting, though the ambiguity of the ending suggests that this way of life won’t last forever in the Old West.

There are excellent performances throughout the cast; amongst them, the stand-out is Melville who is sensational as Miss Lillian while Hunter is a joy as the sheriff who finds sobriety and a love of silk under Jack’s wing. With recent news about financial pressures at the Royal Court, as well as Hampstead Theatre and the Young Vic, the theatre’s new artistic director David Byrne, who takes over from Vicky Featherstone, could do worse than to look to Cowbois as a blueprint for the future.

Cowbois is at the Royal Court Theatre until 10 February