Pumpgirl

Fionola Meredith reviews Carol Moore's cinematic adaptation of the acclaimed stageplay

In Pumpgirl’s original incarnation as a stage play, set in rural Northern Ireland, there are only three characters: Pumpgirl herself – a chirpy wee garage attendant with a gormless grin, cropped hair and a self-consciously masculine swagger; Hammy – a cocky, philandering petrol-head, for whom Pumpgirl nurses a childish passion; and Sinead, Hammy’s long-suffering wife, bogged down in drear domesticity, dutifully changing pillowcases stained with Hammy’s beery drool.

There is no dialogue between the characters, merely a series of interlocking monologues. What’s more, the malevolent character at the centre of the drama – ex-con Shawshank, who delights in sowing misery and disorder – never actually appears on stage. Instead, his leering, mendacious presence is vividly invoked by each of the characters, making Shawshank all the more sinister by his absence.

The risk with turning such a stark play into a film is that the harsh simplicity of the story-telling will be lost. But the locally-made, low-budget film version of Pumpgirl – directed by Carol Moore, with screenplay by original playwright Abbie Spallen – manages the transition well.

Inevitably, the writing is less resonant: it’s snappier and slicker than in the stage play, while the jokes are cruder and more plentiful (at one point, a satisfied lover is described as having 'a smile on her face like Liberace in a locker-room'. And Shawshank gets a big laugh from the film's audience with his quip: 'I'm one of those Reiki masters - I've got my black belt in the loft'). But whatever finesse is lost in translation is made up for by the compelling performances of the central characters.

Samantha Heaney’s Pumpgirl is exquisitely evoked – the flash of girlish enthusiasm in her eyes when she speaks of Hammy, who’s 'pure class' as far as she’s concerned; her stuttering confusion as she struggles to comprehend Hammy’s inevitable betrayal. Heaney has got inside the skin of this young social misfit and brought her sparklingly to life.

Both Geraldine Hughes and Richard Dormer are effective as Sinead and Hammy, a miserable pair fretting to escape an unravelling marriage. And Shawshank himself - now fully present, and rendered larger than life by Gerard Murphy - is fittingly disquieting as a talkative villain with literary pretensions, flinging around references to the likes of Francis Bacon gleaned from his shelf of encyclopaedias. Shawshank is named thus after his claims of born-again redemption resulted in early release from prison: 'In the film [The Shawshank Redemption], they had to crawl through miles of shite to get free, this guy just had to talk a mile of shite'.

Everywhere you look in this movie, Shawshank's big fleshy face, haloed with fat golden curls, is looming up close. In fact, his persona evokes an almost visceral recoil in the audience; you can hear the intakes of breath as his face fills the screen.

Shawshank evidently gets a kick out of cruelly manipulating the people around him, especially the luckless Hammy. By tempting Sinead with his cod-philosophising into a (rather improbable) adulterous liaison, and engineering the terrible sexual humiliation of Pumpgirl herself, he goads Hammy beyond endurance - with disastrous results.

Like the play, this is a bleak film, a story of withered hopes and low expectations. It evokes a stunted world where men are boors and women are treated with casual contempt or indifference, carelessly used and then discarded. That's why it's fitting that Pumpgirl is never given a real name. Although she escapes the tragic fate of Hammy, and resists the temptation to visit retribution on his children, she is left with nothing - a nobody with no name.

Fionola Meredith

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