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Iphigenia in Splott

Sophie Melville is electrifying as a disaffected, unemployed and frequently drunk young woman surviving in a depressed Welsh town in this bleak solo play.

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Sophie Melville in a scene from “Iphigenia in Splott” (Photo credit: Mark Douet)

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Sophie Melville’s electrifying performance as a disaffected young woman surviving in a depressed Welsh town is the muscle of playwright Gary Owen’s intensely bleak solo play, Iphigenia in Splott.

Ms. Melville plays Effie, an unemployed young woman who drinks a lot, smokes marijuana and goes out to nightclubs.  She has a boyfriend but one night meets and has sex with a maimed former soldier. It is a transformative experience.

Physically lithe, wiry and employing a strong but intelligible Welsh accent, the blonde and animated Melville powerfully enlivens this tough 80 minutes.  She is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, and heroically surmounts the challenging material.

Like the English film director Ken Loach, Mr. Owen fiercely focuses on the despair of the underclass in Great Britain.  Owen’s play is for the first third a character study with a catalogue of well-observed biographical, locational and cultural details.

Eventually the actual plot emerges with the dramatic aftermath of the encounter between Effie and the physically impaired man.  Owen then charts the psychological, physical and future ramifications of it.

Sophie Melville in a scene from “Iphigenia in Splott” (Photo credit: Mark Douet)

The writing is poetically descriptive and moderately engrossing with plentiful profanity.  It is, however, a decidedly grim scenario despite abundant humor.  The conclusion is a rhetorical and optimistic rallying cry for social justice. The themes and message are all very well realized in this production.

Director Rachel O’Riordan’s dynamic staging injects compelling visual flourishes.  There’s a good deal of finely choreographed movement and physicality that Melville flawlessly executes.

Hayley Grindle’s scenic design consists of a simple and inventive black décor with a few chairs and a large frame containing a jagged collection of fluorescent lighting tubes.  There’s fluorescent lighting scattered about the stage as well.  Ms. Grindle’s realistic costume design has Effie in a white top, colorful tights, bright sneakers and gray hoodie.

Rachel Mortimer’s artful lighting design frenetically complements the actions.  Sam Jones’ evocative sound design is a series of eerie background tones and pulsating dance music.

In Greek mythology Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra.  After offending the goddess Artemis, Agamemnon is ordered to kill Iphigenia so that his ships can sail to Troy. Different versions of the myth have Iphigenia dying or surviving and joining her brother Orestes.  The play possibly has a connection to the myth.

Sophie Melville in a scene from “Iphigenia in Splott” (Photo credit: Mark Douet)

As moving, supremely performed and technically accomplished as Iphigenia in Splott is, its unrelenting dismalness makes for a tough experience.

With Melville, Iphigenia in Splott premiered in 2015 at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Wales, which is close to the town of Splott.  The production was then performed in Edinburgh, Scotland, and later at London’s National Theatre.  Its acclaim continued as it toured, and it’s now being presented as part of the 2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival at New York City’s 59E59 Theaters.

At the performance attended, the play was interrupted twice near the end due to an audience member who had taken ill.  The first time was brief, and Melville ceased speaking and then authoritatively resumed.  The second time was lengthier with the show being stopped. The house lights were raised and Melville left the stage.  Several minutes later after the commotion, she returned and picked up triumphantly from where she had left off.  Her poise and powers of concentration were as impressive as her performance.

Iphigenia in Splott (through June 4, 2017)

2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival

Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

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