Pumpgirl – 2017 Reviews
The Reviews Hub
“In this town, you’re either a slut or a snob, there’s no in between.”
Abbie Spallen’s gritty northern drama, Pumpgirl, draws a picture of the complex triangular relationship between its three characters: Pumpgirl, Hammy, and Sinead, as they endure their lives in a seemingly desolate rural town.
The setting is a petrol station on the border. It is grim, and this is accentuated by Owen McCarthaigh’s sparse, utilitarian set design. The small stage is a menacing combination of hard, grey concrete, and soft, spongy earth. A lone petrol pump dominates the stage, and the high concrete backdrop dominates the intimate space, making it claustrophobic.
The three characters address the audience in monologue style. This is a restrictive form which depends on the strength of the direction and the cast to provide an energy that is hard to come by with direct address. Unfortunately, Flynn’s direction limits the output of energy by the cast, and the overall effect is repetitive and rigid at times. Spallen’s writing is dynamic, however, and the pockets of dark humour and chilling levity save the piece from being overworked. It’s a wonder that Spallen’s work isn’t better represented on Irish stages.
Both Patrick Ryan (Hammy) and Seóna Tully (Sinead), deliver solid performances. However, it is Samantha Heaney as Pumpgirl that steals the show. Heaney delivers Spallen’s often deadpan script with extraordinary skill and range. She exudes a quiet energy that overcomes the restrictive direction, and she utterly embodies the sense of inescapable entrapment that is Pumpgirl’s life. Heaney’s Pumpgirl is devastatingly vulnerable and bitingly strong in the right measures.
There is a sense, in the intimate space of Nun’s Island theatre, that the ultimate tragedy of this piece is of the characters’ own making. However, this reviewer feels that Spallen’s script goes beyond the tired representations of personal tragedy and rural deprivation, and instead shines a light on the struggle of women to endure a society that is not made for them. That Pumpgirl is trapped in this cycle with no escape, well, that is the greatest tragedy of all.
The Reviews Hub, July 19 2017
Decadent Distills An Explosive PUMPGIRL
With sparkling assurance, Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl splices comedy and tragedy. Scooping the Stewart Parker Award and the Susan Smith Blackburn Award after its 2006 premiere, Pumpgirl is set in a dilapidated garage of a small borderland town in Spallen's native Northern Ireland.
The three-character monologue play revolves around the simple-minded Pumpgirl, who is dazzled by the womanising 'No Helmet' Hammy, and Hammy's disillusioned wife Sinead.
The action pivots on the occasion of Hammy's birthday, when Hammy and his sinister friends pick up the unsuspecting Pumpgirl in Hammy's car while the long-neglected Sinead is rejuvenated by the attention she receives in a random encounter.
Decadent Theatre's involving, intense production, for the Galway International Arts Festival, terrifyingly exposes the loneliness and desperation of Pumpgirl's marginalised characters, claustrophobically trapped by circumstance.
Dressed in blue overalls rolled down to her waist and a back-to-front baseball cap, Samantha Heaney's Pumpgirl is suitably androgynous-looking. Pumpgirl doesn't identify with her sex (she hates women drivers) and loves the "the sweet and sour stink of petrol". But the principal object of her affection is Hammy, and Heaney imbues Pumpgirl with wide-eyed wonder, her face brightly animated as her sentences repeatedly start with "Hammy says...".
As the local amateur racing champion and philandering Hammy, Patrick Ryan captures the character's blend of swagger and nonchalance. Wearing a black and red Ferrari jacket and white running shoes, Ryan offers an elastic performance of a tortured soul that spotlights Hammy's growing remorse.
Borderlands of conscience
I have reservations about the monologue play. It feels like a short cut, a bypass of the raggy business of writing scenes and dialogue and creating interactions. It allows the writer leeway to explain too much. Brian Friel bequeathed the form to contemporary Irish playwriting with his hugely successful Faith Healer. Writers like Conor McPherson, Mark O'Rowe and Eugene O'Brien have had much success using the form and audiences seem to like it. But if we must have monologue plays, then Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl from 2006 is a particularly good example. It is revived for the Galway International Arts Festival by Decadent Theatre Company's Andrew Flynn, who also directed its Irish première nine years ago.
We are in the borderlands of south Armagh, a place of chicken factories and Country and Western music. Three characters deliver inter-cutting monologues: androgynous looking Pumpgirl, who works at the petrol station; Hammy, a petrol-head customer who works in the chicken factory; his wife Sinead, who hates him. Pumpgirl has a cheerful casual relationship with Hammy, they drive to a favourite spot to smoke joints and have sex. Sinead is wretchedly unhappy in her marriage, has two small children, and is open to being seduced by any hopeless guy. Hammy is twisted with a drinking problem borne from unfulfilled ambition. He is only truly himself as a racing driver, winning occasional trophies on the amateur circuit. Their small-town drama is played out on a small stage, a raised platform surrounded by gravel, a hulking petrol pump in the background.
Seóna Tully brings layers and depth to the love-hungry Sinead, ultimately a vain, deluded creature. Patrick Ryan as Hammy is reckless and wasted and full of wrongness. He conveys a tremendous sense of self-torture; he handles a key speech about how they got a raw deal perfectly, never letting himself off the hook. Samantha Heaney is simply brilliant as Pumpgirl - one of the best performances I've seen in a long time. Flynn directs the unspooling story with tremendous sympathy for all three lost souls.
This is grizzly stuff. Bad things happen, including a vicious sexual assault, but Spallen isn't drawn to violence as a substitute for drama. Rather she is exploring how violence impacts on character. The complexities of Pumpgirl's reactions are beautifully handled both in the writing and the playing. Hammy, an angry young man, goaded by his useless pals, allows his worst self to overtake him. Afterwards he is assaulted by regret. Finally, this is a play about conscience.
Spallen creates and peoples the borderlands of south Armagh with remarkable finesse: we vividly see the shopping centre, the school, the petrol station, the estates, the men drinking in pubs. Showing plenty of writerly flourishes and psychological wisdom, she is a vital and hugely intelligent talent. This revival of her breakthrough play is timely.
Independent.ie, July 30 2017
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