Abbie Spallen

Pumpgirl is having its Irish premiere, but playwright Abbie Spallen is not optimistic about opportunities in Northern Irish theatre. Click Play Audio to hear comment

Playwright Abbie Spallen's message to aspiring young people in Northern Ireland is to get out. She doesn't mean get out and socialise, or get up to the big smoke of Belfast to pursue your dreams. She means get out of the country as quickly as possible. Flee. You have more chance elsewhere. Anywhere.

Raised in Newry but finding theatrical success in London, Spallen is forthright. Her frankness is without malice. It feels as though it is hard-won knowledge, her bleak conclusion drawn from fact and reality.

She has little interest in giving me a giddy PR line for Pumpgirl, which receives its Irish outing only after being produced by London's Bush Theatre, opening at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, New York's Manhattan Theatre in 2007, and winning the Susan Smith Blackburn award for international writing.

Abbie Spallen's 'Pumpgirl''I think that one day this country's going to wake up and realise that the rest of the world has moved into the 21st century,' says Spallen, wearily.

'It's going to be a big shock, in terms of sexism, in terms of equal rights, in terms of the things you can say and the things that are acceptable with people from different races, different sexualities or who in any way just happen to be different from a certain type, y'know?'

I remark upon the absurdity of standing in the rain as a Free Presbyterian protest group turned their backs to shun the passing Gay Pride parade in central Belfast the week before. It struck me as a particularly localised instance of opposition and division in a country so used to conflict along purely religious lines.

'We've lived in such a cocooned environment for so long that people think that that's actually still acceptable behavior,' says Spallen. 'When it's not. 

'The rest of the world has moved on and seriously, if you want people to come here and you want people to respect the country then you have to realise that we can't play those games anymore.'

After Druid Theatre's production of her first play Abeyance, Spallen's Pumpgirl follows a young female character employed in a south Armagh petrol station, as she and her friends experience a life-changing night. Because of the amount of action involved, Spallen finds the play difficult to summarise.

'I think it's quite universal, although it's specifically set in south Armagh. One of the cast in New York was from Idaho, or Ohio, and he said it was very like his back yard. It's about people, it's about loneliness and about what people will actually do to find a connection. I think that resonates with a lot of people.'

Abbie Spallen, pictured at All Soul's Church Hall, Belfast Reverting to the question sheet, I ask Spallen what message she might want a young audience member at these Irish shows to take from the play.

'Get out,' she giggles, apologetically. 'Until things change further, get out. That probably sounds quite nihilistic and depressing but I wouldn't lie to anybody and say you're going to have a ball. The only way for things to change is for people to say that, instead of pretending everything's tickety-boo.'

I tell her that I get the impression that that line has been said, and ask if there's anything to be said for being the change, for acting in the place that you wish to affect.

'Well I'm in London, I'm not here [in Belfast]. I'm not going to lie to anybody. I see the way things happen here, I see a network, I see the same people getting the same jobs and... it's just the way it is. I'm not talking about any kind of religious thing. I'm talking about networks of people. Cronyism.'

Nepotism, I counter, is certain to be rife in any industry in any country in the world, if perhaps less evident in cities bigger than Belfast where networks might occupy more space.

'I have to disagree with you,' says Spallen. 'From my experience -- and I'm only really going to talk about the theatrical world here -- I'm talking about sending in an unsolicited script, this script, that has gone as far as Manhattan.

'I'm not going to say that it's not going to happen here because it was actually picked up by a theatre company here in the beginning. I think they were very brave. But I think there are more opportunities for people to go from zero to a long way, outside of here.'

Kiran Acharya

Pumpgirl runs at the Queen's Drama Studio, College Square, Belfast, September 1-20. Performances are nightly at 8pm (excluding the Sabbath). 

Click here for full touring and booking details.