PUMPGIRL: And All the Rest Is Talk


In 2007 alone, it was produced by the estimable Manhattan Theatre Club and won The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize that goes to an accomplished English-language female playwright.

Maybe you haven’t heard of the Stewart Parker Trust Award, but Abbie Spallen’s PUMPGIRL won that one, too. So attention must be paid.

Well, at least it must if you like shows that are all talk and no action.

PUMPGIRL is yet another “play” in which three performers stand on stage, look at us directly, give out with monologues and never interact with each other.

Robert Brustein, one of our greatest theater critics, in his 1963 review of Edward Albee’s THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ, took the playwright to task for using a narrator “whose single function is to provide the information which the author is too lazy to dramatize.” If you agree, you’ll find that Spallen is Public Slacker Number One, for PUMPGIRL has three narrators dispensing information.

Irish Repertory Theatre artistic director Charlotte Moore must like these “monologue plays.” Fewer than four months ago in her upstairs theater she presented LITTLE GEM; there three other performers also spoke their feelings aloud.

At least in that one there was a tiny smidgen of interaction. Not here.

In a Northern Island gas-station-cum-convenience store works Pumpgirl – the only name that Spallen gives her. She doesn’t enjoy when people ask her time and time again if she’s a man or a woman.

One of her customers is Hammy, or “No-Helmet Hammy,” as he prefers. He’s a stock-car racer who’s strictly an amateur in that field. He’s even more of a nonentity as a father and husband.

Thus his wife Sinead has a great deal to say, too. Her musings on a dull marriage will resonate with many spouses who have endured the same neglect.

Because we’re dealing with Irish people here, the word “shite” – a euphemism for fecal matter – is occasionally employed. What all unabashedly say far more often, however, is the F-word and the C-word. For the former, where’s the usual “feck” that would seem to serve the same function as “shite”? In its use of the latter profanity, PUMPGIRL outdoes THE BOOK OF MORMON by far.

Anyone attending must listen carefully, for the monologues are quite dense. Those who stop concentrating for even a moment could find themselves left behind with no chance of catching up. Part of that problem is because Spallen writes in oh-so-plummy language. It’s far more descriptive and loftier than many might expect from her working-class characters.

(To be fair, Spallen might well believe that there is such imagination in these people and is intent on establishing that.)

Despite Spallen’s terrific success – nine of her plays have been produced and two more have been commissioned – if they’re all like this, she might consider writing novels. There readers would be able to take their time perusing a line, re-reading a sentence and much more easily getting what Spallen has to give. If she can win playwriting contests with such ease, here’s predicting that The Specsavers National Book Award for “UK Author of the Year” would be hers if she concentrated on prose.

In choosing her trio of performers, director Nicola Murphy made excellent decisions. All three actors are utterly appealing: Labhaoise Magee as Pumpgirl, Hamish Allan-Headley as Hammy and Clare O’Malley as Sinead. Each is wonderfully eloquent and superbly centered in finding the character that Spallen provided.

The three would be better still if they were given protagonists and/or antagonists to play. Drama is conflict, and, sure, we’re all up for new forms. When one turns out to be a member of an inferior species – and when did you last like a monologue play? – it should be retired.

We can infer why Moore chose PUMPGIRL. She may well staunchly believe along with those prizegivers that Abbie Spallen is a Major Talent. And yet, the play’s appeal to an artistic director and her managing director may be that it only requires three characters (and, more to the point, three actors’ salaries).

Maybe such a barrier won’t be a consideration in the future. Because part of Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set includes that convenience store, above the expected candy counter is an actual plastic dispenser of instant lottery tickets. At the closing night party when the scratch-offs are no longer needed, here’s hoping that Moore rubs her way to a million or more.

That alone would have made PUMPGIRL worth doing for Irish Rep. Many theatergoers may feel that they were far less lucky.