In truly modern fashion, pianist Owen (Philip Honeywell) is a data entry clerk while girlfriend Holly (EJ Martin) urges him to then at least do some weddings. Owen cannot physically touch a piano, and when friend of the family Thom (Neil Chinneck) has a three-month touring job lined up he declines, also because he doesn’t want to leave Holly. She, it emerges after a slightly too slow period of establishment (quite a feat in a play just over an hour long), is turning into a cow.
Studying bovine biology and suffering from episodes of just staring in the distance is Holly’s fate. Putting first Owen and then Thom to the test asking them to cut her tail (there is a vague argument against surgical removal) is but one of the ways in which her condition affects her immediate environment. The Cow Play is at its best when proposing that some things cannot be averted; life sometimes is a wilful child. EJ Martin is pretty good at presenting the Kafkaesque transformation too.
Bryony J. Thompson does a good job in keeping the scenes moving, while Simon A. Wells’s set design features an unusually elaborate kitchen for a venue this size. Its mundanity contrasts nicely with the story. In the intimacy of the Rosemary Branch, everything is made to feel just right (including Ned Lay’s lighting and the apt piano music during scene changes).
Ed Harris’s writing attempts the surreal with infectious boldness and the laughs are plenty. Even though at times the stuff feels a tad too expositional, uncovering the mechanics of plot, what lingers is delightful absurdity and some sharp observations, especially in the relationship between the calm and unpretentious Owen and his friend, whose lust for life takes him places and whose cunning indeed rewards him. I loved the sub-narrative of doing up barns to make them look like habitable places in order to avoid tax.
The staged metamorphosis into a grazing, unthinking animal contrasts with the comparative self-obsession in the other two characters. This thoughtfulness in the script feels like a profound comment on hasty contemporary life. The repeated phrase “If it looks like an elephant, smells like an elephant, feels like an elephant, it’s probably an elephant” is cleverly imbued with some tangible meaning from various sides of the drama. It lifts The Cow Play comfortably into the rank of worthwhile theatre upstairs at the local pub.
The Cow Play is playing Rosemary Branch Theatre until 16 November. For more information and tickets, see the Rosemary Branch Theatre website.