Gary Owen’s 75-minute-monologue – first performed in 2015, when austerity cuts were rife – has a newfound relevance today. Staged at the Lyric Hammersmith – now run by the director of ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, Rachel O’Riordan – the revival sees original star Sophie Melville return to play Effie, a young woman navigating life in a deprived area of Cardiff via a series of head-spinning hangovers and eruptive arguments.
The plot loosely echoes the Greek Euripidean tragedy of Iphigenia, who was sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon during the Trojan war. In this war, Effie’s hometown is losing: the pubs are shut, houses are boarded up, there are two-hour waiting times at the doctor’s surgery and her 70-something gran has to work night shifts at the Co-op to make ends meet. Effie abuses drink and drugs and fucks her way through life, because her ‘brain functioning on full power is dangerous’. It’s no wonder she seems so bitter.
Dressed in hoop earrings and tracksuit bottoms, the play opens with Melville boldly confronting the audience: we must think she’s a ‘stupid slag’ and a ‘nasty skank’. She swaggers, leaps, and wriggles her way around Hayley Grindle’s set – simple horizontal light beams resembling half-open blinds – moving with the energy and choreography of a dancer. She’s brash, hot-tempered, and garishly rude, theatrically recounting her night-time antics and boasting about her sex life. But she’s also sharp, scattering snappy punchlines throughout and looking at the audience dead in the eyes. And since Melville plays her with such command and charisma, you can’t help but hate and love her at the same time.
We see a softer side to Effie when she meets Lee, an ex-soldier who she hooks up with on a night out. This encounter is a turning point, and the story warps into a heartbreaking commentary on the human effects of austerity cuts and a neglected, underfunded NHS. Owen’s exquisite writing makes the scenes heartbreakingly vivid: you can feel the chills of the snowfall and smell the stench of alcohol on Effie’s breath. But the plot always gallops on, unfolding with a dramatic (and at times, manic) pace, heightened by the intense sound production and bursts of extra-bright lighting. It’s truly mesmerising.
After the climax, Effie is hurled back down to earth, finding herself at once completely changed but still in the same place: struggling in the same town with the same people and the same problems. The ending is crushing. She spits out her final message with a note of anger and bitter foreboding, in what is a mobilising and urgent attack on austerity politics and the cruel realities of their effects on the working class and most vulnerable. This play is a vital watch: scenes will flood into your head days after, perhaps when you’re watching the news. You’ll feel unnerved. You’ll feel angry. That’s what’s so great about it.