Pumpgirl @ Bush Theatre, London

cast list
James Doran
Orla Fitzgerald
Maggie Hayes

directed by
Mike Bradwell
Abbie Spallen’s new play at the Bush is as dull as the life in a border town in Northern Ireland it describes. The writing has some fine imagery, wit and a fluent style but ultimately lacks dramatic impact.

Mike Bradwell’s pared-down production doesn’t really address the dramatic weaknesses. Maybe he trusts the writer’s convictions that the words are enough but for me, they’re not. He even ignores the play’s only stage direction, which calls for a more atmospheric set, with a sense of decay and things reaching an end. Instead, designer Bob Bailey opts for a very simple suggestion of setting that merely serves as a backdrop to the spoken text.

And it’s the text that’s the main problem. It’s not so much a play as a series of monologues with no interaction between the characters. As a result, there’s a surprising lack of tension in the situation which is basically a love triangle, a scenario that normally lends itself to dramatic conflict.

Monologues are notoriously difficult to bring off and this is largely due to the fact that it’s in the interaction between people that we really find out who they are. Intercutting three monologues just leads to monotony and a frustration that we’re seeing lives being narrated not lived.

The pumpgirl of the title is a “growed-up” tomboy who loves her job in a run-down petrol station close to the border. She’s keen on Hammy, a neanderthal married man who lives on the same estate, and various unromantic couplings take place. Hammy’s put-upon wife, Sinead, also gets in on the act, having a fling with her husband’s friend, Shawshank, with unfortunate results. As she says at one point, “it’s hardly Doctor Zhivago, you know”.

There’s almost a feeling at times that we’re watching a series of stand-up comedy routines, particularly in Sinead’s sarcastic accounts of her married life, although I have to say I didn’t find myself laughing out loud.

Had the three characters been given very different takes on events, there could have been an interesting Rashamon-like juxtaposition of subjective viewpoints. Instead, we just get a regularly delivered succession of speeches with little dramatic structure, although the play does have an unexpected conclusion.

The 90 minute piece is played without interval. There’s a burst of country music between the two short acts and it screams out for more of the same. The odd subtle lighting change isn’t enough to add variety and to break up the rhythm.

The performances are strong, with James Doran’s brutish Hammy showing vulnerability at times, while Maggie Hayes as Sinead has a good line in down-trodden weariness. Orla Fitzgerald gives an endearing performance as the nameless pumpgirl, although she’s not as butch as the character is described. I don’t think she’d be easily mistaken for a boy and no amount of expletives quite convince that she’s one of the lads. While this may have been a deliberate move to show us her true nature, I think softness showing through a much rougher exterior might have been more affecting. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald and the other actors are to be commended for bringing as much to their under-written characterisations as they do.

The production started life last month at the Traverse Theatre, during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and now runs at the Bush for a month. Sadly, I can’t see it having much of a life beyond that.

Spallen is clearly a talented writer and I hope her future stage work has greater dramatic potential. The Bush can be an exciting space, which has given us some first-rate productions but I’m afraid I wouldn’t put Pumpgirl amongst them.

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