Pumpgirl and ‘a sense of speed’

Abbie Spallen on her award-winning Artsfest play, Pumpgirl

Patrick Ryan, Seona Tully and Andrew Flynn of Decadent Theatre Company. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

Patrick Ryan, Seona Tully and Andrew Flynn of Decadent Theatre Company. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

IT HAS been seven years since Decadent Theatre Company last featured in the Galway International Arts Festival so its presence in this year’s programme is very welcome; all the more so as the company is staging Abbie Spallen’s award-winning Pumpgirl.

Set in a run-down petrol station in south Armagh, Spallen’s punchy, darkly comic, play, centres on the eponymous, tomboyish, ‘Pumpgirl’ who works in the garage. She's sweet on stock-car racer 'No-Helmet' Hammy, but he loves no-one but himself. While Hammy’s out gallivanting, his wife Sinead's on an amorous joyride of her own and Pumpgirl ignites a turbo-charged race through the diesel fumes and country music of the border badlands into its characters’ troubled thoughts, dark desires and deeds.

The play was first produced by the Bush Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, and won both the Stewart Parker Award and Susan Smith Blackburn Award. Since then it has had successful runs in London, New York, and Belfast.

“‘Pumpie’ as I call her, keeps coming back,” Abbie Spallen tells me over an afternoon chat. “She has been in Finland, Philadelphia, Washington, and has had a lot of productions in the States. It’s really nice that the play is being revived again now. I read it again recently, which is not something I usually do, and I was very affected by it.”

From Newry, Spallen last year won one of the world’s richest literary awards, the Windham-Campbell Prize, worth $150,000. She got the initial idea for Pumpgirl after pulling into a petrol station: “Somebody came out to serve petrol and they were like a character. I thought it would be nice to write a story around somebody like that, somebody that's marginalized. I'm interested in people that exist on the peripheries. At the time I wrote it I had been reading a lot of Anne Tyler and I was also going through a massive Sam Shepard phase. When I read the work back I can see the influences.”

With its monologue-driven format and unsparing view of small-town Irish life, Pumpgirl also reminded me of Eugene O’Brien’s Eden. I ask Spallen if that was an influence in any way: “We’re never influenced by writers who are the same age as us,” she laughs. “I know what you mean though; obviously there has been that tradition of monologue plays. There is a ‘reveal’ in the middle of Pumpgirl and it doesn’t work in any other form. We tried to make a film out if it and it didn’t work; the reveal was lost.

"I do remember Eden and I really enjoyed it. What I was trying to do with Pumpgirl was convey a sense of speed; because of the motor racing some of the monologues are staccato, especially at the end of each act, they get smaller and smaller so there is that sense of speeding up. It was a test for me because that was difficult to write in a monologue form.”

Abbie Spallen

Decadent’s production of Pumpgirl brings Spallen [pictured above] back to Galway where she made her first foray as a playwright, in 2001, with a Druid Debut production of her play Abeyance. It also reunites her with director Andrew Flynn and actress Samantha Heaney (as Pumpgirl ) who were part of the Lyric Theatre’s acclaimed 2008 staging of Pumpgirl.

“Andrew did a wonderful job with that Lyric production and Sammy is a superb actress; she has natural talent and so much charisma,” Spallen enthuses. “She is from Newry herself and she doesn’t judge the character of Pumpgirl. I’ve met some actresses who would go ‘oh her life is so awful’ and I’d say ‘you can’t really say that because Pumpgirl would look at your life and think it is awful. She really loves her life’. I remember someone reading the play once and saying ‘the stakes aren’t very high for her’ and I said ‘they are to her’ and Sammy gets that, she understands the area so well she doesn’t look down on Pumpgirl, she plays her as if everything in her life is precious.”

Spallen is currently much in demand as a writer and her main work in progress is a large-scale play for the Royal National Theatre, entitled Sheep on Fire in Penal Australia; “It has 35 characters, it’s an enormous beast,” she tells me. “It’s an historical, Swiftian satire about Norfolk Island in the South Pacific which would have been the Guantanamo of its day for Irish political prisoners. It’s also partly about where we are now and using the threat of terrorism to control the populace. We’ll be workshopping it in July but I’ll find time to come to Galway!”

Decadent’s production of Pumpgirl, which also features Patrick Ryan and Seona Tully, runs throughout the Arts Festival at Nuns Island Theatre, from Monday July 17 to Sunday 30, plus a preview performance on Saturday 15. Fir tickets see www.giaf.ie #GIAF17

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