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Theatre in Review: Iphigenia in Splott (Sherman Theatre, Cardiff/59E59)

Sophie Melville. Photo: Mark Douet

Actors have nerves of steel. Near the conclusion of Iphigenia in Splott the other night, a woman in the audience apparently fell ill. Unfortunately, she was sitting at the end of the third row against the house left wall of 59E59's Theatre B, an intimate, 97-seat space. Her companion, a tall, gangly man, was forced to traverse the entire row, awkwardly stepping over various patrons on his way to seek help. Two or three minutes later, two members of the theatre's staff entered the house, at which point the stage manager announced that the play was being temporarily suspended and Sophie Melville, who constitutes the play's entire cast -- had been bravely soldiering on through all this hubbub -- left the stage.

I only mention this to point out that such an event could have proved an insurmountable obstacle for Melville, who, after the situation was resolved, had to return and finish the play, its spell possibly irretrievably broken. In the event, she did just fine, thank you, picking up where she left off, as if nothing had happened. In a minute or so, she was back in the driver's seat, thoroughly in control. Only a very, very fine actress could recover from such a setback.

And a very, very fine actress is what Gary Owen's solo piece requires. It's all about Effie, a full-time hellion who lives in the title location, a working-class district of Cardiff. Addressing us, she says, "When you see me pissed first thing, wandering around, you think, Stupid slag. Nasty skank." For much of the play's running time, Effie works hard at living up to that description. Apparently unemployed and living on the dole, she explains, "See, the only way I get through the week is through a cycle of hangovers. And I'm not talking a bad head here. I'm talking proper, brain-shredding, three-day bastards." These involve gut-wrenching episodes of vomiting, which can be a tad humiliating when one wakes up "in a stranger's bed, or a bathroom floor, or police cell." At the end of the 72-hour cycle of recovery, the only thing to do, of course, is to head out to the pub and begin again. Other activities include sex with Kev, a weightlifter type whom she refers to as "the prick," among other words I would rather not bother you with, and bar-hopping with her roommate, Leanne, who brings along a bottle of vodka in case the drinks are too watered-down. Most of these expeditions are financed by Effie's grandmother, whom she refers to, affectionately, as "a moaning old trout."

Most of Iphigenia in Splott follows Effie's obsession with Lee, an ex-soldier with one leg lost in an IED explosion, and an unwanted pregnancy that upends her life, when, against reason, she decides to keep the baby. This turn of events shatters most of her close relationships, even as her grandmother, in her seventies, goes back to work as a checkout clerk to earn extra money for her. (The idea of Effie going to work never surfaces, for reasons that are never made clear.) Interestingly, in a play that often seems like one long pub crawl -- upon learning of her condition, Effie immediately starts downing glasses of vodka -- it is interesting that nobody ever utters the words "fetal alcohol syndrome."

In fact, Effie's pregnancy comes with complications, leading to a tense series of events when she goes into labor, and, afterwards, a profound, life-altering decision that must be made. I'm not going into the details -- one of the script's strong points is Owen's way of doling out plot twists at exactly the right moment -- except to say that her choices are provocative enough to cause after-play discussions. By the end, it's certainly clear that Effie has changed, although the playwright's attempt at making her into a transformational figure of suffering -- see the title -- doesn't really fly, nor does his eleventh-hour assertion that this fiercely uncompromising character study is really an indictment of a United Kingdom that tolerates the existence of an underclass represented by the likes of Effie, Kev, Leanne, et al.

Nevertheless, Owen's script is full of vivid passages. There's Effie's initial description of Kev: "One of those pricks you see snarling on the weights at the STAR. Glugging down protein shakes, gazing at himself in the mirror, session after session pumping up his arms and chest. But leg day; leg day, the prick pisses off down the pub, so he's got arms like thighs, but thighs like cheese straws." Spying a promising group of males in the pub: "All of them pretty fit -- not gym fit, all primped and preened, not muscles like boulders, just, you see, their arms and legs are solid. And not one of them with that desperation, the eagerness to please, that screams off every guy trying his luck on every rainy Cardiff night." Then there's her first sight of Lee's leg: "A stump of flesh that just ends. The skin folds over to a red, angry ridge, black stitch marks where they stuck the flaps of skin together."

There's a nagging suspicion that, without an actress of Melville's powers, Effie, with her infantile rages and vertiginous mood swings, might be insufferable. There's no worry of that here; Melville, a petite blonde with a massive presence, holds our attention as if through sheer force of will, keeping us on tenterhooks, trying to guess what she will do next. In a typical gambit, she will, in the middle of a sentence, whip up a shattering fury, ending a sentence staring off, at an angle, into the middle distance. A second later, her head will snap in our direction, her face wearing a smile that is, at once, sparkling and sinister. You didn't take that seriously, she seems to be saying, all the while suggesting you had better take care.

The director, Rachel O'Riordan, has surely aided Melville in shaping her performance, keeping it from going overboard and helping to make credible Effie's final choices. (Melville uses a fairly thick Welsh accent, which demands that you pay close attention.) The production also benefits from an abstract, but eye-catching, production by Hayley Grindle, which features a kind of ladder arrangement of white fluorescent tubes, the upper half in strict order and the lower half in disarray. Additional fluorescent units are scattered around the floor; in Rachel Mortimer's seamless lighting design, they occasionally flare up as Effie passes by, as if snatching a bit of electricity from her. Sam Jones' sound design, which includes static, club music, and what sounds like some prog rock, is aptly done.

Even if Iphigenia in Splott is more a collection of vivid passages than a fully realized play, Owen is clearly a gifted writer, and Melville shows definite signs of incipient stardom. She makes Effie's tawdry story glitter with malice and makes something moving out of Effie's sudden discovery that she might have a soul after all. -- David Barbour

(15 May 2017)

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