Review: Midlife Cowboy, Pleasance Theatre

Comedian Tony Hawks certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge. In the past he’s tried his hand at hitchhiking around Ireland with a fridge, playing the Moldovan football team at tennis and having a number one hit in Albania with the help of Norman Wisdom. As you do. His latest project comes in the form of new country musical Midlife Cowboy, now playing at the Pleasance Theatre.

Hawks, who wrote, produced and directed the musical, stars alongside Debra Stephenson as married couple Stuart and Jane. Their relationship is under strain after they experienced difficulty in starting a family, while Stuart is only able to communicate to his wife when he’s dressed up as The Heartbreak Kid. Together they run the Swindon Country and Western Club with third member, Tinder enthusiast Graham (Duncan Wisbey), and they’re desperate to win the upcoming Railway Museum Gala Evening, having always played second fiddle to the Civil War Re-enactment Society. In a bid to take the crown they recruit two new members, enthusiastic, Swindon-loving hairdresser Penny (Georgina Field) and nervous Dan (James Thackeray), but things don’t work out quite as they planned. Stuart and Jane face a battle not only to win the competition, but to save their marriage.

While a show about a man having a mid-life crisis might not sound like an entertaining evening out, Midlife Cowboy balances drama with comedy, and for the most part it works. Hawks’ humour is evident throughout, and despite one or two clichés and a particular joke a little close to the bone, the lighter moments are genuinely hilarious, with Graham, Penny and the song lyrics responsible for most of the laughs. And the music is where the show excels, the soundtrack a worthy contender for the country music charts. From the ballads such as ‘I Wanna Be Good For You’ and ‘I Don’t Even Know Your Name’ to the more up tempo ‘Cowboy With Confidence,’ the songs are sure to appeal to any Country and Western enthusiast, while the tongue in cheek tunes ‘Big Willie’ and ‘It’s great to be Swindon Bound’ are a touch of genius – who knew a song about the delights of Swindon could be so entertaining?!

There are moments where the action lags a little, and with a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes the script could do with some editing to iron out the issues. But Midlife Cowboy has a lot of potential, and with some development to improve the pacing and give the stronger plot points added depth it could great.

The cast grow in confidence as the show progresses, and play their own instruments throughout. Though he may not have the strongest voice, Tony Hawks comes across well as the banker (now now) experiencing a mid-life crisis, and he holds his own during his own songs, notably ‘Heartbreak Kid’. Debra Stephenson has a beautiful voice and is rewarded with the show’s more tender tunes, but sometimes lacks projection, her voice often getting lost in the music. Elsewhere Duncan Wisbey amuses as the lonely Graham, his solo ‘Big Willie’ sure to make even sullen audience members crack a smile. But the night belongs to Georgina Field and James Thackeray who are incredible as Penny and Dan, brightening up every scene they’re in. Field’s enthusiasm is infectious and it’s hard not to warm to her the instant she steps on stage, while she belts out her songs with ease. Thackeray is equally impressive. While his character is one of the less developed, his voice, particularly suited to the genre, is worth the ticket price alone – his rendition of ‘Cowboy With Confidence’ one of the more memorable moments of the show.

It’s always great to see new British musicals and Midlife Cowboy certainly shows promise. It’s also refreshing to see a show focusing on the relatable woes of middle-aged characters. Despite a few niggles, Midlfe Cowboy is infectious and entertaining, with a brilliant soundtrack to boot. With a little work it could be a hit.

Midlife Cowboy is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 6 October.

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Photo credit: Adam Trigg Photography.

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