Midlife Cowboy – The Pleasance, London

Book, Music, Lyrics and Director: Tony Hawks

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The cowboy musical is a surprisingly underexploited genre; the larger than life characters, the dramatic showdowns and the introspective songs a seemingly perfect fit with the pillars of stage musicals. Middle class angst, however, is a far more common topic for drama so Tony Hawks has combined the two to create Midlife Cowboy, an awkward attempt to place a wholly conventional story in a slightly different wrapper.

Running the Swindon Country and Western Club, couple Stuart and Jane barely communicate – she’s lonely and he’s inept, pained by their inability to start a family and taking refuge in their Wild West hobby. When newcomers Dan and Penny join, and with the annual Gala Night competition approaching, emotions run high as everyone battles for their happy ending.

Hawks’ comedy musical runs at an astonishing 2 hours and 20 minutes given that very little actually happens in a paper-thin plot with only marginal character development. The same pieces of information given to the audience at the start are repeated in scene after scene as different sets of characters discuss Jane’s non-specific unhappiness, the lack of sex in her relationship with Stuart and the absence of children from their marriage. Resolving this, after much discussion, becomes the purpose of a show that lacks any real driving force

The book is most problematic, pitched somewhere between sitcom and British underdog movies, the clichés about middle age quickly pile up, the lack of fulfilment, unrealised dreams and the inertia of suburban life, but the trouble is Hawks has nothing new to say. Even the characters feel rather flat, sketchy even, making it hard for the audience to invest in their anxieties and will them the neatly happy ending that Hawks inevitably delivers. Even the comedy is relatively hit and miss.

The story, which foregrounds the somewhat mundane marital dilemmas, never develops any real momentum confusingly balancing lightweight romantic subplots for the secondary characters, as well as ‘scenes’ from the Gala performance that the Country and Western Club are rehearsing. While the love of Westerns is clear, often these latter sections feel random or superfluous to an overloaded but underwritten plot. It’s also time to retire the tired notion that a woman will be interested in a man she’s discounted if he just persists, which is the basis for the Penny (Georgina Fisher) and Graham (Duncan Wisbey) subplot.

In order to win the competition, Dan suggests cutting the text and just singing, and here Hawks could take his own advice because the songs have a lot of potential, drawing on the bluesy as well as the toe-tapping country style that is so recognisable. Again, there is a confusion between songs for the Gala and those sung by the characters introspectively, and 17 songs is excessive but the competition medley at the end of Act Two is one of the show’s strongest moments combining ‘Good for You,’ ‘Cowboy with Confidence’ and ‘Good Time Girl’ to better effect – perhaps there is 60-minute concert version waiting to happen.

James Thackeray is the standout as Dan giving a vocal performance that is full of country twang and feeling. His character has little to do, but Thackeray’s performance of ‘Cowboy with Confidence’ and the entirely tangential ‘Reward of Love’ make you wonder why he wasn’t given all the songs. Hawks’ Stuart sings well including the opener ‘Heartbreak Kid’ but never suggests any particular upset at his wife’s betrayal while Debra Stephenson emotes well as Jane but lacks confidence in her singing voice which she struggles to project.

There is a good idea in here somewhere but Midlife Cowboyought to be a lot more fun than it is. Earlier this year the hilarious Improvathon at Wilton’s Music Hall proved an audience for Western-themed theatre is out there, but while Hawks has created some potentially interesting music, the middle-class setting and repetitive structure leaves these cowboys firing blanks.

Runs Until:6 October 2019 | Image: Adam Trigg

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