Cow is the one-woman show from Jessica Barker-Wren about a farmer’s daughter coming home to look after her ailing father, as well as her ailing family farm.
Bethan is travelling with her friend to try and find a tractor. Her friend is an aged cow; a large Devon Red called Friendly. We don’t know why she’s brought the cow, and she won’t say why she needs the tractor, but this “casual rural situation” is the beginning of the long and arduous country ramble that is Cow.
From the beginning, Bethan is a perplexing travelling companion. As a protagonist, she’s sometimes difficult to pin down. She’s this pragmatic, no-nonsense independent from rural Devon, and makes this plain by talking about her attitude to gore, and her ability to survive on just nettles and things. But at the same time, she’s also really, really posh. Her siblings are both professionals who have moved away, and her late Mother was apparently an opera singer. Bethan herself has moved back home after pursuing a career in the arts, but this conflict between her ambitions and her familial obligations is never really explored.
I know that some farmers are basically aristocratic but her innate poshness seems a little incongruous. Like more of an amalgamation between some fictional farm girl and Barker-Wren’s real self than a well-developed characterisation. And as the story progresses we learn little more about Bethan – what begins as enigmatic later becomes flat and a little niggling. Who is this woman? And who is she talking to? She brags to us about her ability to chop a tree or to kill a rabbit as though she’s being interviewed for an agricultural college. And then later she tells us about her fear of thunder and her loneliness. But this she offers up just as willingly, in the same pre-rehearsed tones, as she blasts through what must be a pretty hefty script. So who are the audience supposed to be? We aren’t offered any relationship with Bethan, and by erecting such a sturdy wall between us she unfortunately traps herself in a colourless rigidity. There’s no real room for fun or spontaneity, no sense of intuition on the part of Barker-Wren, and by the end, she can’t read the audience any more than we can read her.
Equally inflexible is the cow she drags around the stage. As the only bit of dressing or prop in the performance, Friendly is a cumbersome beast, and Barker-Wren manipulates her with little creativity, dragging her from one side of the space to the other, sometimes climbing onto her, but basically underusing her big bovine buddy. If we can imagine a tree and a tractor, and a couple of thinly drawn characters that crawl out of the woodwork, then surely we can do without the life-sized cow.
Barker-Wren deploys music throughout in the form of an eclectic playlist that surfaces at random points, as well as songs that she sings herself. Again her relationship to this as a device feels strained and under-developed. They add a bit of texture to the performance, and her voice is great, but for the most part they seem ill-fitting and a little showy. If these were employed less frequently, and with more of a connection to the story, then they could be really effective, particularly in light of the character’s operatic mum. Again, we’re left with a dramatic device in place of any real character development. The story itself – which is punctuated by insights into Bethan’s childhood, and gibberish political rants – isn’t much of a story at all. She was looking for a tractor and then she found a tractor. And heaven knows about the plot twist that’s thrown in at the end. It was a story that could have been deemed too bland for The Archers.
Unfortunately, the result is a slightly underwhelming story, and Barker-Wren gives an uncomfortable, nervy performance throughout. For a show that promotes itself as a ‘Rural Tragicomedy’ it was also marked by an aggravating lack of humour, which might have made it slightly easier to get on board with. We weren’t even offered the obligatory cow-related pun.
Overall, an udderly average performance.