Iphigenia in Splott – Lyric Hammersmith, London 

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Gary Owen

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott is an extraordinary play: unstoppably fast-paced and by turns wildly funny, shocking and ultimately moving. Owen’s writing, Rachel O’Riordan’s tight directing and above all, Sophie Melville’s career-making performance as Effie keep us riveted. It is story-telling of the highest order. But it’s even more. Effie’s forceful narrative of life in Cardiff’s deprived Splott builds into a searing indictment the whole of broken Britain.

Melville’s Effie storms onto the stage furious and wired. She abruptly breaks from her aggressive pacing to challenge us directly. She’s the one, she insists, we avoid on the street. She’s the slut already pissed mid-morning. And we have no trouble believing her. We should be grateful to her, she snarls. Her strange assertion haunts the play, its meaning gradually unfolding.

Despite her aggression, we find ourselves warming to her. She takes against a stranger on her street because she’s fat and has a clutch of bawling kids. But there’s a glint in her eye as she reenacts the encounter, showing us how she performs the sinister little pause before the take-down and we find ourselves laughing with her. Something about her energy and her sheer sense of humour draws us in, even if her life consists of squalid three-days benders.

The area, her mother reminds her, was once a place you could live in – shops, services, a community. Everything you need to make a life. But now it’s a horribly recognisable scene of urban decay. Hayley Grindle’s set conveys this with perfect economy – a panel of strip lights, some askew, suggesting boarded up shop fronts. There is imaginative lighting design too, by Grindle and Rachel Mortimer and an effectively sinister mood created by sound designer, Sam Jones.

Sophie Melville’s performance is a tour-de-force of boundless energy and mercurial shifts of mood. She gradually reveals the Effie that hides behind her protective carapace and brings to life the small cast of characters that make up Effie’s existence. Even her boyfriend, the useless Kevin, too lazy to clear up his dog’s shit, turns out to have something gently if hopelessly heroic – selling his Xboxes when he has a vision of a better life with Effie. He’s obviously a decent bloke at heart, but something drives Effie to look for more.

Her life changes when she meets Lee with a group of his soldier mates in a pub. What happens next is both believable and thrillingly unpredictable. Melville effortlessly portrays Effie dropping her mask, at one moment dancing with uninhibited raunchiness in front of the soldiers, then in private revealing a newly awakened sensuousness.

But despite her dreams of a happy-ever-after, the story continues to unfold with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Owen’s taut writing taut uses a pleasing economy of narrative. Less experienced writers would fill in the blanks, spelling out the details of Effie’s background. But Owen goes for telling detail. We don’t know about Effie’s childhood, but when she watches a small girl and her father there is a just enough of a glimpse of something in her own life she might have had – or dreamed of having – but which is now lost.

Nor does Owen labour the myth of Iphigenia, the innocent sacrificial victim, but allows it to seep gradually into the play. Effie herself will never see the archetype she represents. But Owen’s prescient writing and Melville’s compelling performance make her a raw symbol of sacrifice in today’s brutal world. Iphigenia in Splott, first performed in Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre in 2015, has become even more powerfully prescient now. A masterpiece of writing and acting.

Runs until 22 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A prescient masterpiece

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