Pump Girl

Abbie Spallen
Lyric Theatre Offsite Production
Queen's Drama Theatre, Belfast, and Touring
(2008)

Abbie Spallen's three-hander Pump Girl has, during its well received runs at London, Edinburgh and New York, been reviewed as sourcing its roots from the not dissimilarly structured multi-monologue plays of border badlands' menace such as Conor McPherson's The Lime Tree Bower and Brian Friel's Faith Healer.

But, in truth, the characters in this four-letter word splattered tale has more similarities with Sam Shepard's tarnished trailer-trash losers and Maurice Leitch's masterly Ulster-set novel The Eggman's Apprentice which set out the mores of a rural northern Ireland where the lives of its poverty stricken dreamers - confined by soulless jobs and poor wages - are doomed by their addiction to a second hand proxy America of sugary beers, souped-up rusting cars, and Country 'n' Western music, where what sex they have is at the beck and call of any portly and sweaty local villain with a facility for fine quotations.

The Spallen Three are Samantha Heaney's squat Sandra, the eponymous Pump Girl at a run down rural petrol station, Stuart Graham as her tatooed married lover Hammy, dividing his time between hosing down a grubby chicken hatchery and winning local stock-car derbys, and Maggie Hayes as Hammy's improbably lovely wife Sinead, a woman whose now sexless marriage has, as the author puts it, left her sexual urges as a Gobi Desert waiting for their oasis.

The majority of reviews of previous productions of this play, at the Bush, the Traverse and off-Broadway, have deemed Sandra as a "tomboy" due, presumably, to her acquired fondness for the oil-soaked mini-mart petrol station, wearing overalls, cursing and brief sex on the potato crisp strewn seat of an elderly Toyota Celica . But while Ms Heaney's accent, posture, and withering comments on what Marx termed the idiocy of rural life, do indeed fit that lazy billing, it will not explain her love for Hammy which leads her to consider murdering his kids, nor her indifferent acceptance of the drug fuelled gang-rape to which his contemptuous drinking companions have subjected her in an incident which seals the play's tragic conclusion.

Indeed, what this production needs, to add to Maggie Hayes's ambient charm plus Stuart Graham's intensely tortured performance - and indeed to Spallen's perfect ear for Ireland's grimmer realities - is the Sandra which the author herself would have given us had she returned to the searingly bruised young women she has played so rivetingly on the stage a decade or so ago in some of Belfast's smaller spaces such as the Old Museum Arts Centre, O'Mac to its aficionados.

But, since then Abbie has written Abeyance for Druid, Alice Kyteler for Gallowglass, Epuplany for Semper Fi, and, in 2006, Pumpgirl, now scheduled for a film treatment.

That said, Owen MacCarthaigh's Edward's Hopper-ish set, complimented by Ciaran Bagnall's noirish lighting, plus Andrew Flynn's sure-footed direction which deftly subdues the hidden clues in Spallen's terrific text, make this a fine showcase for the Lyric Theatre's second Offsite Production as it tours the province while its own auditorium is, literally, being put in order in a massively expensive, and hopefully sympathetic, new build.

Queen's Drama Theatre, Belfast till September 20th, then touring to Omagh, Enniskillen, Letterkenny, Sligo, Strabane, Cookstown, Dublin and Armagh.

Ian Hill