The protagonist of “Pumpgirl,” the harrowing, brilliant and brutal play by Abbie Spallen, directed with riveting precision by Nicola Murphy and a timely revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, has no name. She is just plain “Pumpgirl,” who works at her father’s petrol station. As portrayed by Labhaoise Magee (who is astonishing), she is not the defined person she would like to be seen as; rather, she is a thing. She is asked rude questions about her gender. She gets come-ons from truckers. The man she has a crush on, Hammy (Hamish Allan-Headley, the perfect embodiment of the banality of evil), she considers a friend. She is also shagging him regularly in his car, despite his “cunt” of a wife, Sinead (Clare O’Malley, in a nervy, arresting performance) and his two young children. So he must be her friend then, right?
The play portrays post-IRA Northern Ireland, and those who are dealing with the economic and societal constructs left to them. Though they inhabit the same space, the three characters – who all live on the same rural estate – do not address each other. Instead, they address the audience in successive monologues. Hammy, who spends his spare time stock car racing, drinking with the lads, and shagging women who are not his wife, works a job in a hatchery, cleaning out filthy chicken cages. Sinead is frustrated with her errant husband, with being a wife and mother in a sexless, loveless marriage. And Pumpgirl just wants to be noticed, particularly by Hammy. But when Hammy comes to pick her up with his drunken mates in tow, though she gives him the benefit of the doubt, he betrays her in such a way that neither will ever forget. Sinead, meanwhile, has already shagged one of the same mates. The consequences of these choices are devastating for all three.
I’m being a bit coy here because I don’t want any spoilers, though there is a warning in the program that “Pumpgirl” contains themes of physical and sexual violence. But this is not the kind of play where everyone eventually does the right thing, calls the police, gets therapy, atones for their sins, is justly punished, etc… mainly because these three do not have the tools to deal with the consequences. Only Pumpgirl has a glimmer of recovery. And though there is some kind of order restored, I couldn’t help but think it was the women who were left to clean up the messes of men. In that community, the men and women snap back into their prescribed roles like rubber bands. The only way to avoid this fate, one way, or another, is to escape.
As usual, the genius set and lighting of the Irish Repertory Company, in this case by set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen and lighting designer Michael O’Connor, never fails to impress – that bed! – and the costumes, from Pumpgirl’s unassuming attire to Sinead’s ruby camisole occasionally covered with a care-worn cardigan, by Costume Designer Molly Seidel, were spot-on.
With “Pumpgirl,” Abbie Spallen and Nicola Murphy have together created a first-rate theatrical experience that is at once disturbing and relentless. I don’t see characters like these depicted onstage very often. But Pumpgirl, Hammy and Sinead demand your attention, demand to be seen and heard, as does this provocative, profound play.