Review: Cowboy Mouth

Johannes Lenhard 14 November 2012

Cowboy Mouth

Corpus Playroom, 9.30pm, until Sat 17 Nov

It is meant as a classic rock ‘n’ roll story: singer-goddess meets playwright, the two immediately fall in love, forget about the young poet’s marriage, have a lot of rum and get into trouble. Mirroring the exact situation in which Patti Smith and Sam Shepard found themselves in 1971, the intimate atmosphere in the well-suited Playroom constantly see-saws between ungovernable euphoria and irresolvable conflict. Cavale (Jessica O’Driscoll Breen) and Slim (Tom Russell) fight against each other, debate the absurdity of life in general as well as their particular past in particular, and seem to be stuck in an American Deception.

Jack Parlett, the director, is surely right – the audience will end up as a voyeuristic bystander unable to grasp the inner complexity of Cavale and Slim. Cruel passivity starts already when entering the theatre and the couple lies outstretched on their dirty mattress. An interval of silence – and the explosions start. The first minutes are dominated by outcries and accusations fluctuating around the f-word – fuck you, fuck it, fucking around. Stories about suicidal rock-stars, half-forgotten electric therapies and Raymond, the dead, black crow alternate with the visible craving for love, intimacy and talent. We are in a ‘countercultural’ American play, don’t you forget that. Unfortunately, it is middle-class Brits playing.

At first, I thought Tom Russell had serious problems with Slim. He seems too energetic, too excitable and too strong. His gestures are fast, his voice often immoderately sudden and stentorian. Only when I learn that Sam Shepard was also very much younger than Patti Smith, this performance begins to make sense. Jessica O’Driscoll Breen on the other hand radiates the calmness, resoluteness and immediacy of a mature rock ‘n’ roll bride. Her voice is a delight, the movements natural. She screams when necessary but seldom seems overdone.

“How come we are so unhappy?” “I was searching for a man with nothing to give him everything.” “Rock ‘n’ roll is the only religion we have.” There are moments of deep despair when the two fall silent, just to break out passionately seconds later. These are the moments when I don’t believe them. Undoubtedly, it is difficult to feel those disruptions and even more so to not exaggerate. But, O’Driscoll Breen’s eyes don’t tell me about Cavale’s passions, fantasies and belief in rock ‘n’ roll. Russell’s nervous voice, his at times clumsy caressing – he doesn’t help me to see into Slim’s ambiguity. I might be demanding too much but those moments seem crucial. When the audience looses trust, the whole piece starts to crumble.

“What do we do now?” Slim chases Cavale. His voice strangely husky, he plays the furious coyote that finally catches the little, black crow. After this performative highlight, the piece ends obscurely, both in terms of plot and performance. The pitable comedy of the Lobster-Man (Jack Parlett) called by the couple to ‘cheer them up’, turns into tragedy when Slim’s jealousy of the supposedly retarded lobster becomes overwhelming and forces him to leave.

In the end, it was not only the play itself but also the performances that turned the evening into a mediocre theatre-experience. Was it in this sense, a conscious decision by the cast not to come out again for a final bow?

Johannes Lenhard