Welcome to Cliché Gulch. OK, so we have the cowboy boots, the studded Levis, the check shirts, the stetsons and a smattering of obligatory “yee-haws” but these necessary accoutrements of a Country and Western show are not the clichés I am referring to. I’m talking about the dreary, uninspiring, going-through-the-motions, cliché-ridden apology for a narrative which is not so much an exploration of midlife crisis as midlife Agony Aunt column: yes, folks – it’s a soap opera – with songs.
So we sit through the, at times, excruciatingly embarrassing dialogue hoping, praying, for a song to intervene and relieve the lack of tension and the hum-drum tedium of the full gamut of middle-aged soap-cliché characters playing out their dismal existences in their Country and Western Club housed in a purpose-built shed in the suburbs of Swindon (brilliant set design by Edward Lidster by the way). We have the married couple who are having “problems”, we have Graham, wall-flower par excellence, we have bright-spark-but-lonely newby Penny and we have Dan. Dan – also new to the club – gets caught kissing marriage-problem Jane by her marriage-problem husband Stuart. It’s all OK though ’cos Dan is gay. Stuart didn’t know that Dan was gay, apparently, because it wasn’t “obvious”. And in a full-blown clunking attempt at dinosaur humour that borders on the offensive Dan replies: “Did you want me to mince a bit?”.
But, as I say, at least there are the songs. A couple of excellent numbers, plus some good ones, and some a bit ropey. The music, though is generally good with all five characters doubling on a variety of instruments. Debra Stephenson as Jane, the long-suffering wife, has a sweet voice though she struggles to transfer her singing projection to her actor’s vocals. Duncan Wisbey, as Graham, once he can escape his wall-flower shackles and express himself, is a delight in his featured solo number “Big Willy” (Yes. Seriously.) It’s a lively and expressive performance and you’re left wondering why we don’t see more of Graham like this. (But I think I know why).
James Thackeray as Dan, livens up proceedings when he comes on with his much more positive approach to characterisation albeit, to my ear, he was a bit flat in his solo numbers. Star of the show, though is Georgina Field as Penny, an ebullient ball-of-fire who makes a valiant attempt to inject some pace, some class and some vitality into the production. She does her best with the turgid lines and she’s a great singer with a real understanding of the Country and Western genre, complemented by an earthy musicality and emotional depth in her renditions – usually accompanying herself on ukulele.
The show is written by Tony Hawks. Tony Hawks is also the Producer. The show is directed by Tony Hawks. And – yes, you may have guessed it, Mr Hawks also takes the lead role of Stuart. Strangely, Stuart gets all the main songs (yes, I think I do know why) and Hawks has a steady and reasonable, though not particularly animated, delivery. But acting-wise, it has to be said, Hawks puts the full-timber into wooden. If I were casting the show I think I would have had Wisbey as Stuart: but, hey, what it must be to have the ear of the writer; and the producer; and the director; and presumably the casting manager to boot.
Don’t get me wrong – Country and Western aficionados will, I am sure, love the show. The rip-roaring finale, a medley of big songs from the piece played by the full band in concert mode – is wonderful and was rightfully
enthusiastically applauded by the audience. But I’d happily listen to that all evening and forego the stodgy, unambitious script.
The show is presented by THP Ltd. I assume the THP is Tony Hawks Productions. But, in this show, the key is in the Ltd – though I’m sure there’s a niche somewhere in the gig economy for clichés-to-go.
review by Peter Yates
Featuring a cast of talented actor/musicians, Midlife Cowboy is tale of heartache, love, and friendship, laced with new country, blues, romantic and comedy songs.
‘Midlife Cowboy’ follows the fortunes of the members of the Swindon Country and Western Club as they bid to end many years of hurt by finally winning first prize at the prestigious Railway Museum Gala Evening – and along the way discover the true nature of heroism. But this is not just about country music. A marriage is in crisis, friendships are at risk, there is more than a sniff of infidelity in the air, and lives are changed when two new members to the club arrive and turn everything upside down.
Debra Stephenson stars as Jane, a country music-loving puppet-maker who is trying to save her failing marriage and revive their home-based Cowboy Club. Debra is one of Britain’s most talented actors and impressionists and her credits include Coronation Street, Bad Girls, Dead Ringers, The Impressions Show and most recently The Imitation Game.
Tony Hawks plays her midlife crisis suffering husband Stuart. A regular on many of BBC Radio 4’s best loved comedy programmes including Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue and The Unbelievable Truth, Tony is also one of the UK’s most successful authors having written many best-selling books including Round Ireland with a Fridge.
Duncan Wisbey (Graham) is an actor, musician and impressionist best known for Alistair McGowan’s Big Impression, Dead Ringers, Four in a Bed, The Hive and Ultimate Brain. Georgina Field’s (Penny) multiple skills have led her to perform in numerous musicals around the UK including Godspell, Salad Days, The Phantom of the Opera and Guys & Dolls.
James Thackeray (Dan) has been seen in Doctor Who and Trainspotting: Live at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.
THP Ltd presents
by Tony Hawks
London N7 9EF
Box Office: 020 7609 1800
Friday 13 September – Sunday 6 October