The set intentionally feels like a stereotypical depiction of 1880s wild western America on a low budget. Yet, what this production lacks in budget, it makes up for in talent.
The stage is a bit bare, with some cardboard cacti and a rock, a faux wooden bull’s head you mount on the wall from what looks to be Typo (which, annoyingly, is never used), some beer crates, and a hessian sack in the back. While the cardboard rock is especially well painted, the cacti give a children’s show vibe that makes me apprehensive. Is this a children’s show? Answer: it sort of is? (There was one five-ish-year-old child in the audience, but I didn’t hear a peep out of them, so it’s hard to gauge the show’s reception to a potentially age-appropriate audience.) Herbert and Hutton play over-the-top wild western characters, from their physicality to their genuinely good American southern accents – if, of course, a bit exaggerated here or there for the fun of it. Their props (like maps) are oversized, and they use a pink hobby horse (possibly a unicorn) to get around. The show is clearly not taking itself too seriously, but in a way that serves the show.
Even so, there were some adult jokes and subtext that brought a modernity to the western style. Rusty Buttons is a gay but very staunch cowboy, and at one point he clarifies that he does mean the people of India when he says Indians, after Jeb suggests he meant Native American. It’s touches like these that keep me engaged in the story and with these characters.
Finn McCauley delivers a great performance as the southern Shaggy from Scooby Doo-style character of Remy, a tracker and sidekick to Utah (Isabella DaSilva), with an exceptional accent to boot. DaSilva, on the other hand, has the scaffolding of a good performer but it feels like she’s holding back during the show. Perhaps more stage time will help her gain the confidence to give her all to the audience.
Rusty & Jeb’s goes hard on the tech (Riley Gibson) – gobos, moving lights, so many colours, silly sound effects – you name it, the show is probably using it. It’s honestly refreshing to see a show that is using the full range of the tech available to them and, again, using it in a way that enhances this fun show. The music by Liam Reid, keeps the feel of the wild west without us paying too much attention – an excellent addition to the show.
The show is quite self-referential, dabbling in some meta-theatre. Commenting on learning lessons in third acts, that characters have clearly had costume changes, or confirming the characters are in a new location as indicated by the lighting state. These inject moments of comedy and keep the audience engaged (if they aren’t already). Where I find the team go too far is when they start ad-libbing too long for a joke that doesn’t land, or getting a character to repeat a line and then pointing out who wrote what joke. Not only does this happen too often for it to be effective, but it also starts to show the actors’ and creators’ egos over the show. There are also certain rules about guns (which are finger guns) that are broken in unintentional ways, and moments for genuinely interesting and funny improv are missed, such as when the actors can’t open the back curtains to re-enter the stage. Hopefully, these are just opening-night jitters, but these things can also be remedied by having a director (a director is not credited in their cast and crew list) – if they get a director who specialises in comedy, even better.
Rusty and Jeb’s Rootin Tootin Cowboy Hour is a fun show where Herbert and Hutton give so much energy, you can’t help but fall in love with the show. It has the strong start to become a truly great show with the help of a director. I also simply must applaud Herbert and Hutton for growing 1880s style facial hair – that is commitment to your work!
Rusty and Jeb’s Rootin Tootin Cowboy Hour is part of the 2022 Fringe Festival and is on until Saturday, 26 February at Te Auaha. Find your tickets here.