Iphigenia in Splott, review: a tour de force by Sophie Melville

Sophie Melville reprises her 2015 role as the baleful, strung out, misunderstood Effie in Iphigenia in Splott - Mark Douet
Sophie Melville reprises her 2015 role as the baleful, strung out, misunderstood Effie in Iphigenia in Splott - Mark Douet

“When you see me p-----, wandering about first thing, you think: ‘Stupid slag, nasty skank,’” says Effie, prowling the Lyric stage in trackie bottoms and puffa jacket like a stray cat on heat. She’s surely right. Everyone has seen girls like her in the street. Effie also knows we avert our eyes when we do. No one wants trouble. It’s a form of power and Effie loves it. Let’s face it, it’s the only thing she has.

Gary Owens’s monologue about a young woman from a painfully deprived part of Cardiff who splits her week between benders and hangovers, with plenty of sex in between, hit the stage with the force of a comet when it premiered at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre in 2015. It’s been revived a few times since then and gets its latest outing under its original director, Rachel O Riordan, with Sophie Melville reprising her role as the baleful, strung out, misunderstood Effie.

It remains a dark and dirty piece of work, a gobby, spleeny, spit-splattered invective that wears its Euripidean allusions slyly as Effie recounts an encounter in a particularly ropey bar one night that changes her life. Amid a blizzard of Jäger shots at the bar she catches the eye of Lee, a former soldier badly injured during a tour of Afghanistan. They spend what to Effie feels like a revelatory night and, perhaps for the first time ever, Effie doesn’t feel alone.

It says a lot about modern Britain that Iphigenia feels as authentic a portrait of urban neglect in 2022 as it did at the height of austerity in 2015. That Owens gives us next-to-no detail about Effie’s life has its own narrative force: she chases cheap oblivion each night because there is nothing else to do. Yet the story, which veers into unexpected territory following her night with Lee, also hits a few more conventional notes. There is the glimmer of hope, a chance for Effie to turn things around. And then, following a second, awful blow, a final provocation to the audience that reveals Owens’s political intent with a crudeness that feels unnecessary.

Still, Iphigenia’s greatest weapon is its ferocious, theatrical poetry. Melville gives a magnificently modulated performance as Effie, daring the audience to admit their assumptions about the type of person she is even as she sets about detonating them. She’s a hollowed-out fireball of aggro and loneliness, craving ordinary things that remain out of reach. With a new round of public spending cuts rumoured to be on the cards to achieve growth, Iphigenia in Splott makes no bones about just who in Britain will be cast as the sacrificial lambs.

Until Oct 22. Tickets: 0208 741 6850; lyric.co.uk