David Lewis watches sparks fly in the Irish premiere of Abbie Spallen's controversial play
Weeks before Abbie Spallen's Pumpgirl began, the Irish News received a letter of protest, complaining of a ‘gratuitously sensationalist’ work, overflowing with foul language and coarse sentiment, which n’er should grace an Ulster stage.
A cunning PR ruse or genuinely disgruntled Armagh ‘drama lover’? Either way, I settled into my seat at Queen’s Drama Centre in keen anticipation of an evening of muck and bollocks.
In that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Pumpgirl is certainly awash with c-words, f-words, b-words and pretty much every other letter in the alphabet words. There’s shagging, drinking, adultery, stock car racing (a perversion if ever there was one) aplenty, but, surprisingly, no full-frontal nudity. Actually, no nudity at all.
Pumpgirl is hardly shocking stuff in these post-censor days. I’d recommend you take your great Aunt Agatha – as long as she’s a regular Edinburgh fringe-goer and doesn’t belong to the Lislea Women’s Institute.
The highlight of the evening by a country mile is Abbie Spallen’s language. It sparks and fizzes, with sharp lines and terrific jokes – on Glen Campbell’s repertoire, ‘really old nuns’ in bomb scares, a housewife comparing her lot in life to Shakira (aka Mrs Michael Caine), a horny husband pecking and slurpsqueezing in bed.
Spallen's writing can be moving and funny in the same sentence. Her descriptions paint vivid pictures, from a burning flatbed truck sinking into a lake to the smells of a closing Newry market to a post-pregnancy stomach like ‘an onion bag’.
Many of the references (Friar Tuck burger anyone?) will sail over the heads of those not from Armagh but the effect isn’t marginalising and parochial. Instead, it shows off a universal richness of language, character and culture with a small c – every place has this kind of stuff, not just Armagh.
The writing is so good that we don’t even mind that the subject matter is a little hackneyed – redneck gang rape, extra-marital affairs, a single-shag-and-up-the-stick pregnancy.
This is a decent Lyric production. Well acted, well put together, well directed. The woman behind may have joked in the interval: ‘The set didn’t cost them a fortune, that’s for sure.’ But truth be told, little set is required. It places us in a run-down border petrol station, all corrugated iron, old BP sign and reinforced glass, then leaves it up to the actors to whisk us around the locality, which they do with great skill.
It would be invidious to single out for special praise any of Samantha Heaney as Pumpgirl, Stuart Graham as ‘no helmet’ Hammy and Maggie Hayes as his wife Sinead. All are excellent, the only disappointment that they don’t get the opportunity to play off each other.
Spallen’s programme notes end with a defensive ‘And yes... it is a monologue’, as if she recognises that this is the play’s major flaw.
‘Oh how, oh how I wish people would stop bleating on about monologues,’ she explains. ‘I know why I wrote one... because it was cheap and I had no money and no investment from any source and a ridiculous thing called a credit card from some very stupid bank on which I was going to fund a production.’
Penury is an understandable excuse, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that the monologue structure removes dramatic opportunities from the actors. The three stories are told engagingly and the writing is clever enough to hold the audience’s attention but inter-cutting at dramatic moments is not nearly as exciting as creating those dramatic moments for real.
The monologue as a form can make the hair on the back of the neck stand on end, as Owen McCafferty’s Cold Comfort proved, but perhaps it only works one character at a time.
Like McCafferty, Spallen’s work was produced first outside of Ireland, enjoying success in London and New York, before returning home. Let's hope that this production and new productions from McCafferty and Lucy Caldwell at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s, herald the end of NI's most gifted playwrights being forced into exile.
Perhaps the powers-that-be at NI’s only producing theatre will wake up and start investing in our widely recognised playwriting talent, before they sell another generation of writers and theatre-goers short.
Pumpgirl continues at the Queen's Drama Centre until September 20, then goes on tour. Click here for more information.
Read an interview and listen to a podcast with Pumpgirl writer Abbie Spallen.