Iphigenia in Splott at the Lyric Hammersmith review: Sophie Melville is extraordinary

 (Jennifer McCord)
(Jennifer McCord)

Sophie Melville gives a stunning, combative, savagely moving performance in Gary Owen’s 75-minute monologue about an exuberantly hedonistic young working-class Cardiff woman.

It’s confrontational in every sense: Melville’s Effie shoves her hard-drinking, hard-shagging lifestyle in our faces and dares us to judge her. If anything, the underlying political message about the steady, willed deprivation of the urban poor is more urgent now than when Melville first performed the play in 2015.

Effie knows what we think of her: “Stupid slut. Nasty skank.” Full of sexual swagger and usually hungover, we first see her spoiling for a fight on the high street. She itemises her chosen male victim’s shortcomings: overpumped torso, tiny legs, incontinent dog. “Why do I even go out with the prick?” she asks.

Effie’s wit is as brutal as her libido, and she’s soon dumping the aforementioned loser to cop off with an ex-squaddie, after which things take a dramatic and then a tragic turn. The climax of the story hinges on a lack of health service funding: but Owen makes clear that it’s a wider impoverishment, of opportunity and diversion, that leaves people like Effie with little to do but get drunk and get laid. This is a lively, passionate piece of writing, packed with the drama and sense of exterior life that one-person shows so often lack.

 (Jennifer McCord)
(Jennifer McCord)

I hate the title, though, which seems to wallow in the very them-and-us smugness the show critiques. You could argue that Effie undergoes a form of sacrifice, like Agamemnon’s daughter in Greek myth, but it’s a massive stretch.

People from south Wales will know Splott is a historically poor part of Cardiff, but for others it will just sound like a funny name, all the more comic when juxtaposed with the highfalutin’ classical reference (fun fact: John Humphrys was born in Splott, and Shirley Bassey brought up there).

Melville’s performance is extraordinary. Full of sass and sneer in a vest and trackie bottoms, hips defiantly jutting and her walk a predator’s lope, she both fills and owns the Lyric stage, the largest space this show has so far occupied. Her accent is a wonder in itself, with distinctive flat vowel sounds: authentic I presume, since Melville is from Swansea and Owen from Pembrokeshire.

The script is pacy and spare. Any misgivings about a man telling a woman’s story are largely allayed by this being an otherwise female-led project. Lyric boss Rachel O’Riordan, who premiered the show in Cardiff and later took it to New York, must take credit for the deft pacing.

Hayley Grindle’s set of a broken Venetian blind made out of striplights is evocative of institutional grimness. But above all, this is Melville’s show, in which she runs an exhausting gamut of emotions with terrific verve. She makes the show: just as it, in a sense, made her.

Lyric Hammersmith, to October 22; ES Tickets