The gas station worker at the center of Abbie Spallen’s 2006 play doesn’t have a proper name. She is merely Pumpgirl. It’s an apropos designation for a woman who’s treated as little more than an expendable utility in this drama about the bleak and often violent existence of people living in present-day Northern Ireland.
Sporting a ponytail and a hoodie, Pumpgirl (Labhaoise Magee) is an unassuming type—not the kind to make friends or enemies. Her days at the station are nonetheless marked by dehumanizing indifference and casual cruelty. The only person who treats her like a person—or, at least, appears to— is Hammy (Hamish Allan-Headley), an amateur stockcar driver who lives for the small fry glory of the local racetrack, while ignoring his wife, Sinead (Clare O’Malley), and children at home.
In this revival of Spallen’s 2006 play, the lives of Pumpgirl, Sinead and Hammy are brought into sharp focus thanks to a trio of vivid performances under the direction of Nicola Murphy. Allan-Headley plays Hammy like an overgrown adolescent, full of puppy-dog excitement that manages to easily turn toxic. As Sinead, O’Malley is charmingly sharp-tongued and quick-witted. Magee, meanwhile, is heartbreakingly sympathetic in the title role. But despite these performances and a particularly strong first act, Spallen’s script ultimately meanders, making for a disappointingly flat and drawn-out conclusion.
The story reveals itself through a series of monologues in which the characters never address each other directly. At first, the monologues are long and linear, but once it’s clear how Pumpgirl, Hammy, and Sinead are connected, the narration jumps seamlessly between them. It’s a format that requires a talent for descriptive writing and an eye for revealing details. Spallen, luckily, has a knack for both. Whether she’s cataloging the grit stuck in a car seat or recounting the moment-by-moment developments of a stockcar race, Spallen knows how find the words to bring a scene to life. Most remarkably, one of the main characters in the show exists only in stories —but we can assume so much about him simply by Spallen’s description of his Indian Head belt buckle.
Through Spallen’s writing, the world of the play feels big and yet highly specific. Yu-Hsuan Chen’s sets add to this affect. On a stage the width of a studio apartment, Chen creates a multitude of environments with impressive economy. There’s the petrol station—with its lime green counter, its lottery tickets, and cheap candies. There’s the bucket seat that brings us into Hammy’s stockcar. And most ingeniously, there’s Sinead and Hammy’s bedroom, represented only by a mattress propped up vertically. This allows O’Malley to deliver her lines standing up and fully visible while appearing to lie down in bed.
The physical distance between the play’s protagonists are part and parcel of Spallen’s storytelling style, but it’s also a powerful symbol of the isolation at the heart of this tale. Sinead is a lonely and frustrated housewife, who is most frequently depicted awaiting her husband’s late-night return. As Pumpgirl and Hammy’s affair begins, it seems that they may be overcoming this pervasive sense of alienation. But a later act of violence makes it clear that there’s no real intimacy to be found here.
The second act, ostensibly, covers the aftermath of that act. But audiences might be forgiven for losing the thread at some point. While the first half of the play is propelled by intrigue as the tension builds, the latter half loses direction, and eventually runs out of gas entirely. While Spallen is a skillful observer of rural desperation, she struggles to wrap an extra layer of meaning around that anguish. In Pumpgirl, the journey is ultimately more satisfying than the destination.