HERRINGBONE, Squabbalogic in association with KXT bAKEHOUSE at Kings Cross Theatre, to 2 February 2019. Photography by David Hooley of Jay James Moody
First staged in 1982 and written by Canadian-American playwright Tom Cone, with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, Herringbone: a Vaudevillian Ghost Story is easily the weirdest, most fascinating, disturbing, touching, funny and flabbergasting show ... ever.
You need to know the story: eight-year-old George is a shy boy, growing up in Demopolis, Alabama. It’s 1929 and the Crash leading to the Great Depression means he and his parents, Arthur and Louise Nookin and grandmother are on their uppers. Luckily, they have a rich relative who dies suddenly. The Lawyer reads his Will in which he leaves them only advice: “Culture in hard times does real well.”
Louise writes an inspirational speech for George to recite in an oratory competition. He wins $25 and an offer of lessons from acting teacher Mr Mosley with a vision of child actors in Hollywood held up before the parents. Arthur is inclined to spend the cash but Louise has stars in her eyes and steel in her spine.
George goes off to Mr Mosley’s house where he encounters his surly manservant who may well be related to Lurch and is found to have some talent for dancing. Mr Mosley also sees something troubling in the shy boy’s eyes and it has an unlikely something to do with Mr Mosley being a one-time vaudevillian and half of a double act – The Chicken and The Frog.
It seems that as The Chicken. Mr Mosley took advantage of his partner Lou – The Frog – who was not only the straight man but a midget too. Lou’s also dead and his ghost has returned to inhabit George; hence the boy’s unusual ability to tap and twirl and generally hoof.
After an incident involving a feather-stuffed cushion, George-Lou set off for Hollywood. Along the way they encounter a boarding house landlady and one-time one-night hook-up of Lou’s and even as he’s attempting a rematch, George plaintively thinks she reminds him of his mother.
The thing about this story is that not only is it a vividly crazy mixture of Southern Gothic and blue vaudeville, but the full panoply of misfits described above are played by Jay James-Moody, virtually simultaneously and absolutely in quick succession.
For 90 minutes, James-Moody fills the KXT’s traverse stage with some eleven disparate, desperate people. He simpers, growls, lisps and segues between each with dazzling accuracy and conviction. His women are pitch-perfect and uncannily physically present even as George remains a diffident little boy, Lou turns clown-deranged and the rest occupy their scenes as vividly as if there were other actors on-stage.
George sets out on his improbable life in whiteface with death-hollow black eyes, and clad in grubby underwear and tatty socks held up by suspenders (design Pam Schultz). Arthur gets him a herringbone suit with part of the prize money and it’s represented by a frayed, exhausted jacket, shirt, vest and bowtie. (At this point I was about to tell you about the rest of the costumes, but actually, I imagined it them...)
Set and lighting designer Benjamin Brockman has conjured the invisible and visible costumes together with a circular setting, painted black and edged with intermittently coloured lights. There’s a stool, a small writing desk and a few props. All is lit via spots and occasional floods of colour to maintain a graphic impression of where James-Moody is at any moment.
Music for the 15 quirky and often witty songs is provided by an eye-wateringly tight trio (musical direction: Benjamin Kiehne) of Amanda Jenkins on double bass, Tom McCracken on drums and Natalya Aynsley on keyboard, with Jessica James-Moody’s sound design keeping the balance between performer and musicians just about perfect.
Jay James-Moody and his Squabbalogic company have been absent from Sydney for the past couple of years while he’s been in The Book of Mormon company and, most recently, in A Cheery Soul for STC. In those two years, instead of serving the talents of others as producer, he’s developed and matured into a brilliant and unusually gifted musical-theatre performer. It’ll be a long time before we see anything quite like this again: grab tickets. Totally recommended.