King’s Head Theatre, London – until 11 February 2023
Existentialism, absurdism, clowning, vaudeville, country music and a gentle queer romance all collide in this strange but rather lovely show. And Then The Rodeo Burned Down is sometimes reminiscent of other, more conventional, plays – Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead spring most readily to mind – but has an off-kilter comic energy, suffused with a certain quiet melancholy, that is entirely its own.
Also unique is its form: defying conventional categorisation, the piece starts off as a sort of athletic, scattershot vaudeville with the two performers (New York-based creators Chloe Rice and Natasha Roland, sublime) bounding on, capering wildly, and applying clown makeup in between dance sections. A little bewildering at first maybe, but worth sticking with as the show becomes progressively darker and more intriguing. The dialogue when it finally comes is witty, elliptical, and all the funnier for being delivered with a winning sincerity, even vulnerability.
The story, such as it is, involves a rodeo clown Dale (Rice, utterly beguiling) who longs to upgrade to the lofty status of cowboy and whose progress is impeded and/or enhanced by their own shadow (a fully realised character, inhabited with gusto and mischievous charm by co-star Roland), as well as a dismissive headlining performer and a conscience-pricking bull escaped from the pen (both played by the brilliantly shape-shifting Roland). The piece turns into a bit of a whodunnit as the rodeo gets set on fire and they seek to find the identity of the culprit.
The plot matters less though than the playful, sexy, slightly edgy mood throughout. When the house is plunged into darkness in a mock power cut, the performers do a welcome potted summation of everything that we’ve learned thus far. It’s a useful moment for them and us to catch our collective breaths and regroup. Ultimately, if you like your theatre slick and with linear storytelling, this probably won’t be for you, but it has a haunting contemplative quality as it ponders questions of self awareness and ambition, which contrasts nicely with all the energetic meta-theatrical hi-jinks, that stays with you long after.
Chloe Rice and Natasha Roland have a magical chemistry that ensures that their hour long show is consistently watchable, even as it threatens to become irredeemably obscure at times. That said, at its most engaging, it’s genuinely captivating.