Review - Iphigenia in Splott at National Theatre 2016
If you've ever wondered what an Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologue delivered by Matt Lucas's 'Vicky Pollard' or Catherine Tate's 'Lauren' would sound like, Gary Owen's hard-hitting and in-your-face play has you covered. I make this comparison in no way to belittle or trivialise the text, instead commend a dramatic device that allows a serious message to be conveyed in a fittingly modern way.
Owen has a tight grip on the pathos and is cunningly effective at tugging on your heartstrings at the precise moment. Much of this success concerns his set up of the central character of Effie as the sort of rolling drunk you sneer at passed out under the table at Chicken Cottage – the type of person who exists in every town and whose complicated story is looked over thanks to their drunken behaviour.
Sophie Melville's solo performance is nothing short of extraordinary. From the moment she explodes onto the stage she holds you in the palm of her hand, and continues to shake you from side to side right up until the shattering conclusion. She manages to avoid the land mines of parody and pastiche that clutter the text, effectively humanising the character and drawing you in to Effie's sorry cycle, that, to begin with, allows little empathy.
Owen's text consciously plays it for laughs, developing a unique idiolect packed with millennial buzzwords, disgustingly candid sexual descriptions and passages of barely distinguishable verbal assaults on the audience that trip effortlessly off Melville's lips and land with a punch. However conscious, it works in building a character that in one sense seems so far away from the middle class National Theatre audience, but also effectively generalises and humanises a huge problem in our shared society.
Rachel O'Riordan directs an effectively simple production that finds the energy required to bounce off the temporary theatre's walls and radiate its message appropriately. Hayley Grindle's unobtrusive design flickers alongside Effie's tragedy, allowing space for Melville to inhabit and shift with the rhythm of the text.
The subtlety of the polemic is what makes this one of the most powerful and stirring political plays of recent times. Through Effie, Owen creates a one-woman revolution from the most unlikely of candidates and one that represents wider society presented in the most unique microcosm. After a rampant and kinetic seventy-five minutes, Effie shines the light back on the audience, opening up her story and you find yourself gulping awkwardly as the penny drops. Whilst the Iphigenia of Greek Myth sacrificed herself for the ships of Troy, Owen's Effie sacrifices herself for us all.
I couldn't help but think of the end of J.B Priestley's An Inspector Calls when Inspector Goole tells the family that whilst one Eva Smith has gone, there are “millions and millions and millions” still left with us “all intertwined with our lives”. Stirringly simple, it's a powerful message that's been well earned.
"The ending is a little rushed, perhaps even a little too pat, but this is 75 minutes in which Effie finds a voice to remind that resilience is a sticking plaster, and what is required is revolution."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"Sophie Melville is remarkable as Effie. Dressed in a grey hoodie and gaudy leggings with her hair tormented in a fluorescent scrunchy, she seems at the outset to be playing a type – but through Owen’s multi-layered text we see someone aggressive and tender, courageous and frightened, funny and sad."
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph
"Her performance is caustic, but also flecked with seductive and vulnerable moments — teasing, touching, profound. She savours the intelligence and political anger of Owen’s writing, which is painfully vivid and sometimes devastatingly funny."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard