It’s late in the evening in Dublin when two lovelorn souls, each of them complex storms of emotion, pitch up to an open mic night in search of something that life has cruelly denied them – an audience. This, as anyone who has ever attended the exquisite tortures of an open mic night will know, is not an easy relationship to sustain. But in Tom Moran’s new play relationships are imagined as particularly tough crowds.
Take the first performer, a sensitive young singer-songwriter known in the programme as Him, played by Moran, who performs a ballad of abandonment at the keyboard. Or, immediately after him, a young woman, known in the show programme as Her, played by Danielle Galligan, who arrives to sing a song of departure. Before she can make good on her promise, though, he engages her in some endearingly awkward conversation, stuttering with so many repetitions (Repetitions? Repetitions.) that it sounds like the pained flirtation of two people with profound tinnitus.
This may be intended to resemble the speedy patter of a screwball comedy, from which, sadly, the wit has been blanched away. ("What if I wanted you to touch me inappropriately?" she says, in tone-deaf badinage to his gauche come-ons, as though #MeToo never happened.) Still, it allows Him to offer, by degrees, both his ear and his middle finger: "I was going to tell you to go f**k yourself," he says, to her guffaws, "but I'm also here to listen." That might seem contradictory, but if you've attended an open mic night you know the feeling.
Rejection, moreover, is the abiding theme of the play. Moran’s troubadour has suffered a double indignity, dumped by his girlfriend midway through a song he composed for her. Galligan’s Her is bound for New York to meet her dying father, who, for reasons never made clear, abandoned his family long ago, and, for reasons never made clear, has named her as the sole beneficiary to his vast fortune, which, for reasons never made clear, is causing her a great moral dilemma. Should she stay or should she go? “Wow,” he says. “Wow,” she replies. “Wow,” he counters. “Wow,” she concedes. (Wow, I thought, for admittedly different reasons.)
To some extent, Lyrics may simply be about the search for words. Both young characters seem to be scouring themselves for worthwhile experience and trying on poses, such as the depths of heartbreak or the strange sensation when you stand to inherit an enormous fortune from the father you've never met. But if that last predicament sounds screwy, a hollow fantasy dilemma to be taken "with a cutlery drawer full of salt" as one of the show's curious turns of phrase has it, the character of Her never emerges as anything more than an audience to be won over.
While director Romana Testasecca allows Moran to sit at the piano, or, on occasion, by a moonlit window, Galligan only ever stands, sometimes coquettishly against the wall, and her only serious attempt to leave is immediately halted by another of Him's maudlin songs, granted a sudden spotlight. That feels a little too close to a performer's wish fulfilment, and when she pleads with him later to perform again, while he protests, the show's idea of true harmony is to cast Her in the role of adoring accompaniment. By the end of Lyrics, they are both singing the same tune, but only because he has put his words right into her mouth.