In a world where queer characters are often two-dimensional, Cowboys And Lesbians pokes brilliant fun at romantic cliches while creating a sparklingly camp coming-of-age romcom.
This sparkling dialogue really sings in the hands of a fabulous cast
Nina and Noa are 17-year-old best friends wondering why intrigue and romance only ever happen to other people. Their mockery of tropes about young love and girlhood evolves into a fabulous second narrative unfolding in front of the painted tarpaulin backdrop of Every-Brokeback-Oklahoma-Mountain-Prairie-Ever. It’s a wonderfully camp world populated by mysterious cowboys, moody teenagers and outlandish scenes of peril, and a starting point for the girls to explore their own fantasies and desires.
The play evokes a very queer kind of stuckness: fear of pursuing our own happy ending, uncertainty about what that would even look like. As it satirises romantic stereotypes, it also explores the real-life stasis they perpetuate: where “sex-dreams” are about brown jumpers, and “everyone’s a bit queer” becomes a bit of an excuse to avoid expressing or celebrating our queerness to the people we are closest to. Indeed, there is so much unexplored romantic tension between our heroines that you ‘could’ create an entire parallel cowboy universe within it. Billie Esplen’s lively, at times lyrical, writing spans the tensions between these worlds and their characters with ease. It has all of the laser-sharp back-and-forth and emerging romantic tension of Austen and Ephron, but in a voice entirely its own, telling stories that I recognise.
This sparkling dialogue really sings in the hands of a fabulous cast. Georgia Vyvyan perfectly captures Noa’s sweetness and enthusiasm, while Julia Pilkington is completely believable as a witty, slightly closed-off Nina. They are immediately realistic and likeable and smart and sardonic: with the brassy exterior and naïve unsureness that reads completely believably. They are both able to transition from naturalistic awkward hugging to over-the-top flirtation at the drop of a hat, while communicating the subtle connections between real-life and fantasy. A standout performance is Pilkington’s show-stopping cowboy: slick, sexy, sidesplittingly funny. As the rosiness of Cowboyland fades to greyer lighting, heavy coats become comfortable yet restricting places to retreat to, really grounding the difference in movement and blocking between the play’s two worlds.
All of the show’s elements hang together beautifully to create a queer microcosm resplendent with the angst and charm and silliness of its teenage protagonists. We laughed, we gasped, we completely rooted for Noa and Nina. There was something indescribably joyful, too, about catching glimpses of myself or my friends in their performances and knowing that the people around me were also recognising their experiences: “very real” as a fellow audience member whispered. Queer coming of age is so often glibly touched on, or else portrayed solely as a struggle, that seeing it explored and performed with such vividness and precision was a revelation. 17-year-old me didn’t realise she was missing out on a romcom like this; perhaps that’s exactly Esplen’s point.