views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Death Row Cowboy
The Courtyard Theatre
8th April 2015


Andrew Lynch and Mark McCabe as Carl Brant and Bobby Brewer

Photography provided by Three Peas Theatre

Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails: on the surface they may look sweet enough, but what are some little boys really made of? Well, for one, Carl Brant (Andrew Lynch) is well-mannered, polite and fond of his mother - the sort of boy who is shaping up to be a real fine gentleman. One day though, he calls a 911 operator (voiced by Helen Norton) and confesses to killing his mum as well as a police officer. I bet you didn't see that coming - if only because it happens off-stage before Death Row Cowboy starts. Whilst Carl waits on death row along with inmate John Ritchie (Joe Riley), their prison officer, Bobby Brewer (Mark McCabe) tries desperately to win over the policeman's widow, Hillary Reece (Rose O'Loughlin). She's glaringly uninterested in an alternate happy ever after with him, but love makes fools out of all of us, and Bobby isn't that bright to start with.

Some details of the plot don't quite ring true, however the basic premise is an intriguing one. Carl seems intent to take his motivations for murdering two people to his grave but, like Hillary, all we really want is to understand why he did it. He doesn't seem unhinged or angry - far more chillingly, he comes across as quite normal. The scariest kind of gunman isn't the one ranting and raving, it's the one who could be quite placidly sitting next to you, suddenly falling apart without any warning.

It's certainly promising on paper, yet Death Row Cowboy is a production with issues - most of which can be attributed to the direction. In perhaps a case of too many cooks, the play is helmed by Florence Bell, along with writer-performers Lynch and McCabe. Some silences and delays are deliberate and do escalate the tension. However, many of the scene changes are lengthy and slow in a far less intentional manner, which makes the audience uncomfortable and confuses them to the point where they aren't quite clear when the production is over. It's only about 85 minutes straight through and yet there are some moments where time seems to grind to a halt. There's some fantastic original music both composed and performed by Mick Fitzgerald - it has a pleasingly authentic country feel to it - but the directors ignore this resource and instead choose not to shelter the gaps with any sound whatsoever. It's just stark and awkward. Rarely does such a tactic work, so it's surprising that out of the trio of cooks, not one objected.

Not just that, there's a bizarre Street Fighter/Super Mario mash up scene which some will undoubtedly find out of place and while initially jarring, it actually offers quite a good insight into Bobby's state of mind and simple aspirations. It shows imagination from the playwrights.

Although there are problems with the timing, what Lynch and McCabe do fare rather better at is the characterisation. Bobby is a simpleton with but one focus and his bumbling attempts to win over Hillary are pitiful. The widow is a grieving wreck of anger, jealousy and hurt, and exposing her flaws so readily makes for a very human portrait of loss. Grief is an ugly beast, and Hillary's failure to process it with any real dignity is achingly hard to bear. As she says nothing in the aftermath of a written reply from Carl and then makes dull small talk, every silence and every pointless word highlights just how numb she feels. Nothing matters to her but the answers she craves.

The acting is decent enough and even though the writing has a dash of M Night Shyamalan in it, much like the Indian filmmaker's work, the direction hinders Death Row Cowboy's full potential. With a few tweaks to the script, some better considered timing and maybe some more involvement from Fitzgerald, there could be an alright show here. It's not a full pardon, but we're certainly willing to grant a stay of execution whilst the company makes these changes.

Death Row Cowboy ran from 2nd to 12th April 2015 at the Courtyard Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Old Street (Northern)

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