Review: Small Town Lives Yearning For Something More In Abbie Spallen's PUMPGIRL

By: Nov. 19, 2019

"In this town you're either a slut or a snob, no in-betweens," explains the put-upon wife of a local celeb racecar driver in Abbie Spallen's tryptic of character studies, Pumpgirl, now getting a very well-acted production at the Irish Rep.

Labhaoise Magee (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

There's no doubt of what category she would choose for the title character, who works at a gas station but might be regarded by the play's two other characters with a cruder definition of the word's meaning.

Premiering at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival, the three souls inhabiting Spallen's darkly humorous drama, are never seen interacting. Instead, they take turns addressing the audience in two acts worth of monologues, each looking at the same relationships through different angles.

We begin with the young woman simply referred to as pumpgirl (sweetly friendly Labhaoise Magee), who serves customers in a financially struggling old Northern Ireland gas station located just a fraction across the border, "on the wrong side of a fluctuating exchange rate," as the author puts it.

Dressed for dirty work in a hoodie and baseball cap, the pumpgirl spends her workdays being amused by the gruff older men who flirt with her and the primped up ladies who giggle too much as they question if she's a man or a woman.

The highlights of her days are visits from amateur racer Hammy (dangerously charming Hamish Allan-Headley) who complains about his wife and shares his love for the music of Glen Campbell. Occasionally they have sex in Hammy's car, but he can't be much of a lover since she seems more occupied with noticing the trash on the back seat than whatever it is he's doing.

While set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen provides a detailed garage for the pumpgirl's monologues, the fellow known to his fans as No Helmet Hammy gets just a single car seat. There's a cute innocence to the fellow as he describes the excitement of maneuvering to the finish line as the crowd chants "We Will Rock You."

Clare O'Malley and Hamish Allan-Headley
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

But while he enjoys making his children proud with the cheap trophies he wins, he'd rather spend nights receiving attention from women at the pub than in the company of his family.

At first, the audience views Hammy's wife Sinead from above, as Clare O'Malley stands in front of a propped-up bed for another night of waiting for her husband to arrive, usually to selfishly grope at her. Feeling her life has become meaninglessly repetitive, she takes advantage of an opportunity for infidelity, which changes the balance of the dissatisfying trio of lives.

While Spallen's language is vibrant and descriptive, two full acts are a bit of a stretch for this one, especially since, in director Nicola Murphy's mounting, things can get a little static with the three actors primarily designated to their individual spaces.

But the cast is exceptional, and in the end Pumpgirl adds up to a fine display of acting talent and incisive storytelling.

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