Comic and author Tony Hawks has been incubating his country comedy musical, Midlife Cowboy, for nearly 20 years, ever since he came up with the germ of an idea for a one-act play at the Edinburgh Fringe.
It’s been tried out by celebrity pals in front of other showbiz chums and received all the plaudits you’d expect from friends for a much respected entertainer.
But last night it premiered in the big wide world, at Islington’s Pleasance Theatre, in front of the (mostly) paying public and, for the opening, an audience stuffed with his ever supportive comedy peers.
I would love to say that this labour of love, from one of the nicest men in the business, was worth the wait, but there’s so much work that needs to be done before this show has the legs to survive.
There’s potential but, and I can’t believe that I’m writing this about Hawks, whose off-the-wall books have kept me amused for years, the unbelievable truth is that his self-penned jokes fail to raise a smirk and the hackneyed plot reminds of an ’80s BBC sitcom.
At last night’s opening the cast – Hawks, impressionists/actors Debra Stephenson and Duncan Wisbey, and trained actors Georgina Field and James Thackeray – played to their strengths and exposed their weaknesses.
But the story isn’t without a certain charm. Stuart (Hawks) and his wife, Jane (Stephenson) run the Swindon Country & Western Club where the pair, and their dozy mate, Graham, act out cowboy scenes and sing.
But Stuart is suffering a midlife crisis and their marriage is struggling, particularly as they have been unable to have kids.
As mild-mannered banker, Stuart Whitehead, he’s lost his confidence and sex drive and is spending more time immersed in role of The Heartbreak Kid, his fictional, heroic cowboy character he’s created.
Jane is getting desperate. She loves her husband but doesn’t know how to put the spark back into their marriage.
Her one hope is that he will regain his confidence and mojo if the club can win a prestigious community gala night where local clubs and societies vie for a top prize.
But how can they win with just three members? A recruitment drive brings in shy carpet fitter, Dan, and bubbly divorcee, hairdresser Penny, and things start to look brighter.
Middle-aged angst, loneliness and longing play in the background as this motley collection of lonely hearts work and sing to get their lives back on track.
The songs are sweet and engaging with one – Big Willy (sounding like a throwback from a Benny Hill show and packed with double entendres) – finally getting laughs from the audience.
But the show is let down by a poor script and story – and one subplot is absurd considering the ages of Hawks and Stephenson.
Georgina Field is outstanding as the effervescent Penny who reveals her comedy chops with a hilarious opening musical homage to Swindon.
And Jake Thackeray gives a strong turn as Dan, an under-confident bloke looking for love, and whose life was “saved by carpets.”
But, sadly, this whimsical Midlife Cowboy needs to saddle up and head on out in search of a major rewrite to be anything more than a vanity project for its writer, producer and director, Tony Hawks.
Midlife Cowboy runs at the Pleasance Theatre until October 6.
This whimsical Midlife Cowboy needs to saddle up and head on out in search of a major rewrite to be anything more than a vanity project for its writer, producer and director, Tony Hawks.