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Iphigenia in Splott review at the National’s Temporary Theatre, London – ‘blisteringly powerful’

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photo: Mark Douet Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott. Photo: Mark Douet
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Is there a more potent symbol of everything that scares the shit out of us than the hoodie? It’s become a container for every Daily Mail-mediated, middle-class fear. There’s a growing genre of British horror film entirely devoted to swapping Freddy or Jason for council estate kids in hoodies as nightmares made real.

Effie (Sophie Melville) swaggers on to the stage in a hoodie. She knows its effect – her effect – on the people that see her, pissed up on a three-day bender, chucking up in Chicken Cottage. It’s her weapon, it’s how she keeps the world at bay. We judge and vilify and scurry on, not wanting to look deeper.

Gary Owen’s blisteringly good play transfers to the National’s temporary space after wowing audiences at Edinburgh and in Cardiff last year. It’s produced by Sherman Cymru, which promotes the work of Welsh artists, but the streets of Effie’s Welsh town could be anywhere in the UK: boarded-up houses, NHS cutbacks and people too worn-out to care about those falling through the cracks.

In Greek myth, Iphigenia sacrifices herself. And that’s where Owen – who takes the legend and maps it on to our unequal British society – takes us here, with Effie. But she’s far more than a victim and the writing is stingingly funny and sharp as jagged glass. There’s blunt poetry in the sudden appearance of a polluted beach.

And Effie’s story (delivered in monologue) shifts and swerves. Like her, it’s much more than one thing – at times heartrending, other times nakedly hopeful, all the while overlaid with an awful sense of tragedy. Owen picks deftly through the wreckage of Effie’s world, like a compassionate, clear-sighted preserver.

Sherman Cymru’s artistic director Rachel O’Riordan captures the play’s many tonal changes in her production, which is fluid and textured. It’s a masterclass on how to keep an audience focused in the right way. The scattered neon tubes of Rachel Mortimer’s stark lighting design flicker and snap with Effie, while Sam Jones’s soundscape is an echo of unease.

The effect is to keep our attention firmly trained on Melville, but that’s not hard. She’s riveting as she swaggers around the stage, challenging us as she throws herself on to the three chairs that are the only props. She gives Effie a fierce intelligence and a sneer that cracks into the kind of smile that will break your heart. It’s a breathtaking, bruisingly good performance.

This play never patronises Effie, or fixes her in place, like those who tut ‘slag’ at her. Her story isn’t happy, but it’s hers. And, by the end, Melville burning with intensity, she’s alive to society’s failings, to its hypocrisy and its neglect. She’s no longer a scapegoat. She’s a witness, an accusation and a warning.

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A blisteringly powerful indictment of society’s failings, with a stunning performance at its heart