Darting nervously through buildings, gripping a suitcase full of her worldly possessions, Polly has yet to settle in 1930s New York. The dulcet notes of jazz brought her here from Ireland, where all she could expect was a marriage. But the singer is already finding new confidence, remarking on the city skyline: “I used to look down but now it’s always up.”
From the outset, Jessica Leen’s new play with songs for The Nth Degree, in association with Theatre Upstairs, seems like a refreshing search for self-expression. Her Polly transforms near-instantly from nervous arrival to smooth-taking crooner. “I see you in corner,” she winks to the audience. “I like your hair. It’s got a lot going on.”
In performance, Leen’s silky voice wraps around suspicious imagery. “He’s a lady-killer,” she sings, eyeing defiantly a regular gawker in the crowd. Even though Johnny (Darragh Shannon) is also from Ireland, are we to be any less suspicious?
There’s fun in discovering the tunes, and in the switch from dialogue to intimate confessional. (“He’s a bit of alright, isn’t he?” she asks us). Elsewhere, the conversation flies like a screwball comedy. But the plotting is clunky, so much so that director Ronan Dempsey feels the need to use every corner of the auditorium. Throw in gloomy foreshadowing and abstracted displays, and the production starts to feel unfocused.
It seems like an act of self-sabotage for a drama about a woman fleeing traditional Ireland to devolve into a conventional romance. Johnny is ferocious in Shannon’s immensely detailed performance, getting into fights and failing to land a job. He thoughtfully signs up to the war, just after they decided to start a family. Polly, later holding a baby alone, wallows depressingly in motherly guilt.
This is far less absorbing. It’s the blend of hard-boiled speech (“He can’t remember you, honey”) and silvery jazz music – composed by Leen with Tiz McNamara and Dylan Howe – that is this production’s charm. By the time Johnny comes home, traumatised and quiet, the tone has turned sour. “I can’t take this silent treatment anymore,” Polly snaps.
That regression to a petty drama is unfortunate. And when the characters reunite for the umpteenth time, the play’s message is definitely misty. There’s really no excuse for the production to go bitter, especially when the barely controlled melodies of jazz nearly always make longing and heartbreak sound so sweet.
Two of Clubs is at Theatre Upstairs, Dublin, until December 16th. For more details, click here.