“Iphigenia in Splott”, Lyric Hammersmith

Jeremy Malies in west London
10th October 2022


Another play about altruism. In his The Hard Problem, Tom Stoppard discusses whether selfless concern for the well-being of others is consistent with evolutionary biology. It would be a plot spoiler to explain exactly why, but Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, which premiered at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff in 2015, ends with the title character (Effie) forgoing potential personal enrichment and taking pride in the fact that she has contributed to the common good or at least not snatched at public funds. Altruism is discussed at length in the final passage.


Sophie Melville as Effie. Photo credit: Jennifer McCord.


Not being a classicist, I’ve agonized over how the source material has been used here. Suffice it to say that Owen makes very free use of the plotline of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, and while the original focuses on the Trojan Wars, it’s the class wars that are to the forefront here. (Saying this, of the many unseen characters, the principal one and the fulcrum of the plot is a soldier.)

Aulis becomes Splott, a Cardiff suburb previously the site of a steelworks. And it’s a hinterland full of embittered desperate people, many of them reduced to substance misuse by the hopelessness of their existence. Our tour guide, protagonist and the sole on-stage character (though the brilliance of actor Sophie Melville means that the evening is richly peopled with a supporting cast in her mind’s eye) is Effie whose appetite for alcohol is matched only by a monumental libido.

“Monodrama” rather than “monologue” is the popular critical shorthand for this kind of play. It’s a meaningful tag but one that I’m only willing to hand out sparingly. The last time I truly sensed a whole world being conjured up by a single actor was watching Cillian Murphy in Enda Walsh’s Misterman at the National Theatre. This is on the same exquisite level in terms of acting and writing.

Effie staggers through life with only brief interludes of real sentience between hangovers. (It’s testimony to the forensic nature of Owen’s writing that, a recovering alcoholic and teetotaller for 19 years, I had scary flashbacks to my own worst drinking bouts as I watched Effie neck industrial quantities of sweet Riesling with vodka chasers.)


Sophie Melville as Effie. Photo credit: Jennifer McCord.


Melville is in trackie bottoms and hoodie throughout, but this isn’t the trendy work-from-home Covid lockdown garb of her neighbours in nearby leafy Roath Park. It’s her uniform and she is proud of her chav “skank” role amid the nightclubs and pubs of an urban jungle in which she begins as an alpha female but is humbled by unrequited love for a man from a higher economic if not social class. “They’re stacking us up,” she says of planners who are cramming family units like hers into high-rise blocks. By contrast, her love interest lives in a bungalow.

As Effie tells us that when money runs short, she survives on 20-pence pot noodles, I can’t have been the only audience member to think of Liz Truss’s latest and most vicious trickledown move. Prompted by her belief that the UK population is lazy, the PM has just announced that welfare benefits will rise, if at all, in line with the perceived increase in wages across the economy (a figure that can be easily massaged downwards) rather than any kind of inflation rate.

Director Rachel O’Riordan who is the artistic head at the Lyric Hammersmith has brought this with her as a project from when she was in charge at the Sherman. The material is perhaps even more relevant now as urban blight extends to just about every city in the UK. Sam Jones’s sound design includes use of music by the British “trip hop” artist Ghostpoet whose lyrics focus on the kind of poverty that Effie is facing. But Owen is never merely polemical; Melville and Effie might be a little elfin physically but in terms of abstract meaning they are fully fleshed out.

You sense that O’Riordan envisages Effie’s account of her emotional and sexual journey, factually detailed as it is, as coming to us while she is on a trip from a hallucinogenic drug. Director and performer must have worked closely to ensure that while there are some enormous upward gear changes in the character’s mood, the progression to hysteria and back down to stoicism always finds credible anchor points in Owen’s text.

Rachel Mortimer’s lighting design is fluorescent strips (a nightclub light descends at one point) with not all the strips illuminated and some of them set akimbo. I took it as an illustration of the disjointed flashpoints in Effie’s memory that punctuate her story. She gives us the judgements of her cynical grandmother and equally dysfunctional flatmate, and their verdicts serve as a Greek chorus.

This is 75 minutes (no interval) of engrossing gruelling theatre. Truly epic and perhaps more Homer than Euripides; Effie is on a journey and is a supreme storyteller. The show transferred from Cardiff to the National Theatre in London. It has also been seen in Berlin and New York. But the production team have said that this will be the play’s last incarnation with this set of creatives. Effie is like a comet; she emanates light and heat at great speed on a finite flight path. Catch her.