Herringbone: great premise T-boned by a weak story

Patrick Street Productions is presenting Tom Cone's Herringbone at the Anvil Centre.

Sing out, Luisa! She can do it — like really do it. (Photo by Mark Halliday)

I wish that more people who make theatre would pay closer attention to how plays are built.

Herringbone (book by Tom Cone, music and lyrics by Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh respectively) has a lot of things going for it, but sturdy structure is not one of them.

The premise (borrowed from Cone’s one-act play) is great: it’s 1929 and when George, an eight-year-old boy from a financially strapped Alabama family spends a small windfall on acting lessons, he discovers his forte is song-and-dance, but that’s because his body has been invaded by the spirit of a dead midget vaudevillian — and Lou, aka The Frog, is a nasty piece of work.

Lou is the spiritual distillation of ambition, of ruthless, compensatory attention-seeking: Herringbone is about the dark side of creativity. It’s also about child abuse: the exploitation of young performers’ spirits and bodies. (This aspect of the story gets very creepy.)

I am all for the premise and the subject. I also very much appreciate Luisa Jojic’s solo performance. (Jojic is alternating nights with Peter Jorgensen.)

Jojic, who plays 11 characters, performs up to five-person scenes by herself and there’s never a millisecond of doubt about whether she’s tremulous George, his bellicose father, his stalwart mother, or Chucky-like Lou. Impressively, Jojic also performs two-character comic business — hitting herself in the back, for instance, and then reacting — with spot-on timing.

And she can sing! I’ve been watching Jojic perform for years and I had no idea what a set of pipes she has. Her pitch is perfect and she effortlessly tosses off the musical’s many styles, including patter songs and torchy ballads.

More power to her.

But here’s the thing: there’s very little tension in the material. That’s because George, who is the protagonist, has no agency, he is almost entirely passive until about the last ten minutes, so there’s no centre to the story: we’re not watching him try to do anything.

When Lou shows up, Lou has an agenda, which creates peripheral conflict with George’s mom and dad (mostly mom), but the centre is still missing.

Although the songs are witty, musically pleasing, and dazzlingly well played in this production by Sean Bayntun, Alicia Murray, and John Bews, they don’t advance the action — because, for too long, there’s no action to advance. (There are events, but that’s not the same thing.)

Herringbone gives Jojic (and Jorgensen) the opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff. And it gives director Kayla Dunbar a chance to stage “a whimsical and dark flight of fancy”, as she says in her program notes. But what about telling a compelling tale?

HERRINGBONE Book by Tom Cone. Music by Skip Kennon. Lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. Based on the one-act play by Tom Cone. Directed by Kayla Dunbar. Presented by Patrick Street Productions. At the Anvil Centre on Thursday, September 26. Continues until October 6. Tickets.


NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!