Herringbone, a potentially ambiguous name that alludes to a pattern could mean just about anything. I’ll be the first to admit that I had little idea what to expect from a “vaudevillian ghost story”. The title itself was intriguing, if not outright mysterious. Happily, I can say that I got far more than I bargained for in Squabbalogic’s Herringbone.
What made this play, Squabbalogic’s comeback after 2 years hiatus, so interesting was the multidimensional aspects that the play presents to its audience. On the surface, it is an orthodox, charismatically entertaining vaudevillian performance. However, underneath this orthodoxy hides a tale of deep implication, that amazingly is able to strike a balance and not present harsh judgement onto its characters for their otherwise highly immoral actions. In essence, on one level the audience is watching a performance not too dissimilar to the concert halls of New York or London in the early 20th century, however on another we take a deep overview of the broader surrounds that reveals a trove of elements that subvert and inform our humanity: desperation, revenge and self-indulgence. It is the reimagining of the vaudeville genre that makes this play a must see.
The performance is (with the exemption of the musical troupe) a pure vaudevillian delight, a one-man show performed by the immensely talented Jay James-Moody. It tells the story of a young George Nookin, who, upon winning a local Lions speech competition, is recommended to go to Hollywood to take up commercial radio and film opportunities. However, the apparition of the ghost Lou the Frog changes everything with murder, money and immorality. The script is able to masterfully bridge a tension between financial desperation, grotesque immorality, and greed through comedy. The performance of this oldish tale has a spectre of the absurd from the outset, with James-Moody coming onstage with an eerie white face and just a singlet and underwear as the older Nookin. In total James-Moody acts an eye-watering eleven different roles (Herringbone; Arthur; Louise; Grandmother; George; Lawyer; Nathan Mosely, the Chicken; Tailor; Howard; Lou, the Frog; and Dot), which marks a truly amazing ninety-minute monologue, interspersed in what can only be described as an unfolding decline in humanity is song and dance in the true vaudevillian tradition. These musical numbers (totalling fifteen) range from funny to grotesque, but nonetheless find a way to be endlessly entertaining and engaging. Indeed, some of the scripts more tired moments are helped enormously by the sudden song and dance that really helps the audience connect with what the zeitgeist of a particular scene is trying to convey.
Yet, a good script and a good actor is not everything in a production. I am glad to say that the elements around this play were very well executed. The musical troupe did an amazing job forming a distant yet very relevant part of the play as James-Moody would from time-to-time interact with their presence, which was very clever when it is common for musical elements to be not tangible or hidden away in most other productions. It was a true compliment to the purposes of the performance. The breaking of the fourth wall into the audience happens with reasonable regularity and as such the very intimate space served its purpose very well to great effect.
Ultimately, to call this a play would be very incorrect. I’m honestly not sure what to call it. Thus, seeing something so very different from what I consider theatre was a breath of fresh air. I commend James-Moody (Artistic Director of Squabbalogic), co-director Michael Ralph and the production team for pulling off a performance that is so remarkably different and untouched by many directors around the world. It’s good to see them back in action.