With a vibrant onstage band playing as you entered, Gold Coast Little Theatre’s production of ‘Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls’ was inviting from the outset. Philip Dean’s Australian play set in 1960s Sturt, Western Queensland, follows the story of two unlikely friends, brought together by their passion for Country and Western music. Vicki, a conventional Stepford wife of a tradie who spends more time away from home than he does at home and Rae, a carefree barmaid from Toowoomba, who always tends to say the wrong thing and meet the wrong men become the unlikeliest of friends in Dean’s work of comedy and social commentary of Australia.
Accompanied by a rich tapestry of stylised country and western charts, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls’ successfully weaves classics from Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn into its narrative, and although none of the songs are used to explicitly move along the plot, they serve to round out the overall experience and create moments of humour.
Direction by Michelle Watkins was extremely strong throughout, making brilliant use of the Gold Coast Little Theatre’s intimate space. Watkins’ use of Lawrie Esmond’s impressive set design was clever and inventive, dividing the stage into two separate worlds representing Vicky’s traditional home and Rae’s vibrant pub setting. Although the show suffered a little from some pacing issues, particularly during some overly-long scene changes, Watkins managed to extract oodles of Aussie magic from her two leading ladies, her blocking always allowing them to engage organically.
While uncredited in the programme, Musical Direction was solid throughout. Although the show didn’t allow for the drama and emotion of the original versions of the songs, both actresses gave their all throughout and the balance between the live band and actors was spot on, creating a wonderful sense of cohesion.
The live band, consisting of Lawrie Esmond (guitar), George Pulley (keyboard and banjo) and Jordan Ferrigno (drums) created an authentic country and western sound. Some tuning issues could have detracted, but ironically they almost appeared to add to the overall bluegrass sound of the source material. Not only used to accompany songs, the band also helped cover up long scene transitions with era-appropriate music that got some of the older audience singing along.
With nowhere to hide or opportunity for respite, a two-person cast can strike fear into even the most seasoned actors. However, Francesca Spear (Vicki) and Becky Morgan (Rae) appeared to devour every sentence of Philip Dean’s work, successfully finding the subtle nuances of this enjoyable piece of Australiana.
As Vicki, Spear managed to create an intense imaginary world of domesticated bliss that was far from the truth. It was her character’s descent into liberated singledom that was where she showed her expertise, maturely and beautifully handling the sensitive subject of divorce, especially whilst keeping within the social norms of a more conservative 1960s rural town.
Becky Morgan’s character, the larger than life Rae (definitely not Raelene, as comically quipped in the show) was the antithesis of homebody Vicki. Her brash language and lack of decorum was striking and necessary to create the tension needed in the play, much like the Odd Couple. Morgan’s comic timing was honed to an impeccable standard, continually forging moments of humour and amusement.
A two-hander relies on a strong relationship between actors. With stylish complementary vocals throughout and an obvious trust built on stage to rival Laurel and Hardy, this production of ‘Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls’ had more chemistry than a high school science lab, and the audience clearly lapped it up. From their country and western movie shenanigans to their late-night binge-drinking sessions, the audience felt as though they were watching actual life-long friends – a true testament to the skill these two actresses possess.
Although simple, the sound design was effective throughout and the balance between the vocals and live band was pleasant to the ear. Sound effects – such as background chatter in the pub scenes – added a wonderful immersive depth to the work and never overpowered the dialogue. The lighting design was of a similar ilk – simple yet effective, creating clear zones segregating Vicki’s home from the town pub.
The inclusion of vibrant splashes of colour cleverly depicted other locations, such as the local park or movie theatre, but never felt out of place. Unfortunately, it was the use of follow spots that detracted from the overall suave and polish of the production. Regularly unfocused or slow to follow the actresses across the stage, their jarring cool white light felt incongruous to the warm feeling on stage.
From the wonderful engaging story to the boisterous Australian banter between the two leading ladies, ‘Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls’ was a beautiful slice of Australiana. Perfect for fans of plays, musicals or country and western classics, you’d be ‘crazy’ to miss this modern Australian classic.
‘Long Gone Lonesome Cowgirls’ plays at Gold Coast Little Theatre until 22 February, 2020. For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit https://gclt.com.au.
This article was edited by Shane Webb.