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Theatre in Review: Pumpgirl (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Labhaoise Magee. Photo. Carol Rosegg.

Irish playwrights seem to love nothing more than an evening of intertwined monologues; so many plays of this type have come our way lately that I wonder if dialogue hasn't been banned on the island outright. Such a format can work beautifully in the right hands: A few months ago, the Irish Rep had a success with Elaine Murphy's Little Gem, a frank and funny account of three generations of women trying to work out acceptable destinies for themselves. Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl is a rather tougher nut, a tale of three lives set against of bleak landscape informed by brutality and betrayal. It makes harder work for an audience, but is well worth the effort.

Pumpgirl was first seen here in a 2007 production at Manhattan Theatre Club; since it takes place in Newry, just over the border in Northern Ireland, it may have a new currency, given the possibility of Brexit hardening the dividing line between North and South. Indeed, it is set in a time when free travel between countries is still unquestioned; the title character, a service station attendant, notes that business has declined precipitously: "Diesel's cheaper in the South so the cars just fly on past." As it happens, this is least of her problems.

When not fending off the crude advances of male customers, Pumpgirl's traditionally masculine occupation and manner of dressing leave her open to vicious comments: The driver of a carful of women -- note the copies of OK! Magazine littering the interior -- leans out the window to ask, "Well, we were just wondering, like, if you were, like, a man or a woman?" (No wonder Pumpgirl adds, "I hate women drivers.") The one bright spot in her life -- or so she thinks -- is Hammy, who works in the local hatchery and enjoys a modicum of local fame as a stock car racer. Of course, Hammy is married, so their relationship consists of sordid backseat encounters, but at the mention of his name, her hard expression softens, radiating a hope that is heartbreakingly unrealistic.

How unrealistic? A single look at this handsome, overgrown boy tells all. Hammy lives for the thrill of the race -- he is addicted to speed of the automotive sort -- and hanging out with his mates, so much so that he rarely makes it home before the middle of the night. Waiting for him there is his wife, Sinead, who barely tolerates him and his roistering ways. Indeed, Sinead is such a tough, clear-eyed commentator on his faults that it is little wonder that he avoids her penetrating gaze.

Spallen's method is to let all three participants in this triangle hold forth in rotating fashion, and for a good stretch of the first act, it's not clear that she has all that much of a story to tell. Then she introduces a fourth character, Shawshank, who is part of Hammy's racing-and-pub crowd; he remains unseen, but we hear plenty about him as he links Pumpgirl, Hammy, and Sinead in a chain of circumstances that includes adultery and gang rape, leading to tragic consequences for them all.

Though not a perfect piece by any means, Pumpgirl is so obviously the work of a natural writer that one wonders why we haven't heard more from Spallen. Each character speaks in a distinct and arresting voice, loaded with startlingly accurate turns of phrase. The text is loaded with local slang and pop culture references from ten to fifty years ago -- one of the more amusing bits is Hammy's defense of Glen Campbell as a misunderstood artist -- so you have to listen very closely, but once you crack the characters' codes, the rewards are many.

For example: Pumpgirl remembers a loutish customer's crude pass, "as if his downward pointy fingers just touchin' the palm of my hand are hiding some sort of a sexy bond known only to the two of us. The big bollocks." Describing Hammy's souped-up Toyota Celica, she says, "When you're leaning over to fill the petrol tank you can smell the heat on the paint as the sun glints off the disco sparklies in the roof." Hammy may be something of an oaf, but he, too, often has a sharp tongue: After a race, he says, "Two young ones, one with braces like a set of train tracks, come up to me for my autograph." Iced out by a potential bar pickup, he grumbles, "Look at her. Marilyn from the back, Manson from the front."

Spallen reserves the tartest observations for Sinead, who, lying in bed, irritated, says of Hammy's late-night arrivals, "I can hear him coming in. First, like always two spots of light [from his car] appear in each corner of the wall in front of the bed. Like aliens landing." Surveying the women of her family with a hopeless eye, she says, "I've a family full of women settled for a bunch of bastards. Patterns. Christmas day at our house: Hammer House of Horrors Wax Museum Open Day." Trying to explain how she ended up with someone like Hammy, she says, "It's like when you've had cider all your life and someone buys you Asti Spumante, you'll convince yourself you're drinkin' champagne."

The characters' caustic wit conveys the disappointment of life in a council estate where any possibility of getting out or getting ahead is vanishingly small. Absent any real opportunity, the men are trapped in a perpetual adolescence that manifests itself in a casual cruelty -- at times, barbarity -- toward women. Everybody lives on false hopes, all of which come crashing down when Sinead decides to flirt with a stranger and Pumpgirl goes on a date with Hammy that includes his male friends. The repercussions are profound: Sinead's everyday life will be dissolved. Pumpgirl, treated with savagery, teeters on the edge of committing murder. And Hammy faces a reckoning that proves too much for him to bear.

An early play, Pumpgirl is both overlong and overwritten. Spallen generates considerable dread as the characters are caught up in a web of deceit and violence, but the second act turns melodramatic as she piles on the plot twists. It may also prove too astringent for some theatregoers: At the performance I attended, some (mostly older) patrons were clearly undone by the uniformly bleak finale. Yet the play retains a bracing honesty: Spallen's vision may be stark, but it hardly feels inaccurate.

The production serves as a fine calling card for the director, Nicola Murphy, who gets excellent performances from her trio of performers. Labhaoise Magee's Pumpgirl assumes a tough fa├žade for her day-to-day existence, but her craving for romance is palpable. Hamish Allan-Headley gives Hammy a rowdy manner accompanied by a vacant, slightly lost stare, making clear that he is no match for the responsibilities of adult life; the moment when, too late, he realizes the bankruptcy of his existence is awful to see. Clare O'Malley, fast becoming a mainstay of Irish Rep productions, turns Sinead's endless dissatisfaction into bilious comedy.

The production, in the tiny downstairs theatre at the Irish Rep, has a tripartite set design by Yu-Hsuan Chen that provides the action with a sensible ground plan, aided by Michael O'Connor's attention-shifting lighting. Molly Seidel's costumes perfectly express each character's essence. Fan Zhang's sound design blends automotive effects with the sounds of "We Will Rock You" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," the latter by Hammy's favorite, Glen Campbell.

Whatever its weaknesses, Pumpgirl is the work of a writer we should know better. Now that the Irish Rep has taken Abbie Spallen up, let's hope the company investigates more of her output. -- David Barbour

(18 November 2019)

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