The Cow Play

Tue 6th – Mon 26th August 2013


Patty McCabe

at 08:56 on 13th Aug 2013



Holly (Holly Campbell) and her boyfriend Owen (Zach Wilson) are discovering the joys of domesticity; Thom (Olly Forsyth) is Owen’s pushy best friend, and one day Holly grows a tail. Written by Ed Harris, directed by Ross Drury, Smoke and Oakum production’s of ‘The Cow Play’ was surprisingly moving and sharp throughout.

We are greeted to twittering and a kitchen sink. Holly sits on the floor playing with a yellow flower. Enter a playfully perverse Owen who asks her about the yellow flower’; ‘Did I get you those?’, ‘You were drunk’, ‘Well it was a romantic gesture then.’ These lines are repeated throughout the play, each time with a deeper sense of tragedy. Owen and Holly exhibit all the normal habits of a young couple; they discuss cooking, jobs and, perhaps less normally, Holly’s therapist Robin. Enter Thom, a man who claims that his ‘only talent is getting by without any talent whatsoever’, much to Holly’s displeasure.

Somehow, woven into the whole turning-into-a–cow story line, is a story concerning love and friendship in extremely testing circumstances. Owen discovers Holly's new edition of a tail during an erotic GCSE French fore-play session, yet he continues. Their relationship changes and develops throughout; Owen screams ‘I don’t want to touch you’ as Holly’s transformation becomes more difficult to mask, yet by the end is endearingly and heart-breakingly tender.

As the tale unfolds, layers to the characters are revealed that you would never suppose were there. Holly is clearly troubled, as suggested by her need for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); Owen’s fear of piano playing suggests a troubled past, and his resolve to stay with the increasingly bovine Holly arises from the fact that he does not want to end up all alone like Thom. Thom is far from the Del Boy-esque, happy-go-lucky type that you would assume. He is the one Holly turns to in her darkest moment, he constantly looks out for Owen despite being pushed away; the relationship between the two men is incredibly touching and composed of steadfast loyalty, boyish immaturity, and irritation in equal measure. All the cast faced these challenges head on; the acting was convincing and poignant throughout.

In many ways, the story should have been dire - who writes a play about turning into a cow? Yet, it was a poignant, thought-provoking, and highly accomplished piece of theatre. That Holly was turning into cow seemed almost irrelevant as the play drew to its close, emphasised by the fact that one never actually witnesses any of Holly’s physical change. What one is left with is a powerful story about love and friendship…with a bovine edge.


Georgina Wilson

at 09:10 on 13th Aug 2013



Imagine if a woman was turning into a cow; well, thereby hangs a tale. A tail, too, actually, which is convenient given that one is sprouting horrifically from the rear end of the protagonist Holly, (played by Holly Campbell) in 'The Cow Play'. It sounds inevitably comic and, had the three-person cast been one jot less convincing in their acting it certainly would have been. There aren’t many actors to be found within the whole of Edinburgh who can announce, “you have a tail!” and not provoke loud guffaws from beyond the footlights.

We don’t laugh, though, because the moment Holly’s lover Owen (Zach Wilson) crawls on stage doing his “stupid dog impression” and emanating erotic tension, we are all gripped; leaning forwards in our seats too far to even contemplate our rapidly exiting assumptions that something called 'The Cow Play' would be, at best, a bit of a joke. Owen’s dog impressions return intermittently, marking out the trajectory of his partner’s descent into bovine madness and providing a kind of pleasing structure to the whole story. His attempts to revive sexual contact prove futile: the now catatonic Holly munches some grass absent-mindedly, proving the poignant truth of her earlier statement, “what is Holly, except a space that one inhabits temporarily?”

Such a statement emerges naturally in the middle of a deceptively reassuring on-going exchange between the three characters; a script of witty, true-to-life conversation. Realistically ineloquent sentences – “How was work?” “It was like… you know” – propel the first half of the play as three fully-rounded characters emerge from before our eyes. Later on, when the underlying tensions between the cast slowly reveal themselves, we are still treated to moments of laughter led by the slick, yet irresistible arrogance of Thomas (Olly Forsyth). He’s an intelligent development of the public-school-boy stereotype who thinks it within his powers to do pretty much anything, including quickly learning to be a conductor. The musically talented Owen insists “you can’t just pick up a stick and give it your best!”, and is met with “err... this is called a baton”. Touché.

There is no happy ending in this magical tale, only a gentle yet insistent pressure on us to realise the horror of total isolation, the warped perspective of someone who feels cut off from the world and that “every day the glass gets thicker”. Holly insists that talking to her therapist would be pointless because “Robbin does CBT. This is a tail. It’s different”. Without ever pointing out the obvious, director Ross Drury has created a performance which delicately offers up the suggestion that there might not be such a clear-cut divide between these two states as it would seem.


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