Obscure in every way, this multi-character one-man musical, which debuted back in 1982 to the sounds of chins being scratched, is quite the showcase for an actor of Jay James-Moody’s calibre.
As well as the singing and dancing, it also demands its performer play 10 roles and switch between them in a blink.
Written by Canadian playwright Tom Cone (who died in 2012), Herringbone is a straight-through 90 minutes divided into three sections. The first transports the audience to Demopolis, Georgia in 1929, just as the Wall St Crash matures into a national catastrophe.
Here we meet eight-year-old George and his parents, Louise and Arthur. Like everyone else, they’re doing it tough. But hope springs when George wins $25 in a speech competition.
Taking some unwelcome beyond-the-grave advice to heart (“culture durin’ hard times does real well”), it is decided that the winnings should be invested in a herringbone suit and song and dance lessons. It’s during one of these that George is possessed – hijacked might be a better term – by the spirit of Frog, the murdered half of a once famous vaudeville duo.
So far, so weird.
But things take a stranger turn when Frog demands that George head for Hollywood to become a movie star, thus realising all the dreams Frog was unable to chase in his shortened life.
And while he has control of George’s child body, why not have some carnal fun with it?
Like I said, Herringbone is weird. Imagine a song-strewn mash-up of Wise Blood and The Day of the Locust, with a dash of Gypsy and Little Orphan Annie thrown in for good measure.
Played on a circular dais ringed with lights, this Australian premiere production, co-directed by James-Moody and Michael Ralph, is staged with great care and attention to detail. All its elements are carefully judged and precisely calibrated.
Jessica James-Moody’s sound design and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting provide excellent support for James-Moody’s quick-change acting. Pamela Schultz’s costuming is perfect. The three-piece band (Natalya Aynsley, Amanda Jenkins and Tom McCracken) address Skip Kennon’s tricky 15-song score flawlessly.
James-Moody’s performance is remarkable. For an unceasing 90 minutes, he capers, creeps, hobbles, swims, and, yes, he jumps like a frog. His character flips are razor-sharp. The ménage a trois between Frog, a terrified George and a hotel receptionist named Dot is rendered with sufficient clarity to make it uncomfortable to watch rather than merely comic.
As good as the central performance and production are, I’m not completely convinced this Southern Gothic twist on the Faustian pact is an intrinsically great work of theatre. It’s more showcase than show and the pay-off isn’t there in the end. But this fine staging gives Herringbone its best shot and with it, James-Moody’s semi-hiatus as a seldom-seen Book of Mormon standby can be considered well and truly over.