Iphigenia in Splott (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh)

Sophie Melville stars in Gary Owen’s monologue first seen at the Sherman Cymru in May

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott
Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott
© Mark Douet

Life’s a minefield. There’s no knowing when it might explode. A chance glance across a dance floor could trigger love at first sight. A one-night stand could be the start of something special. Or it could break your heart. There’s no knowing. It could leave you pregnant. You could end up dead. Whatever happens, you are not entirely in control of your life. Not now. Not ever. No-one is, really.

Gary Owen‘s monologue, first seen in Rachel O’Riordan‘s production at the Sherman Cymru in May, is a furious piece; a tirade against welfare cuts piling up on the poor. The less you have, the more vulnerable you are to life’s emotional IEDs and Effie, a young woman in a two-bit town, steps on one after another.

She starts stuck in a cycle of drink and daytime TV. Her boyfriend’s ineffectual and she’s not much better. Superbly played by Sophie Melville, her hair pulled back into the tightest ponytail, she’s quite something: so savvy, so shirty, so harsh. She uses her sexuality, because it’s all she’s got, and yet everything’s aggressive: in a club, crossing the dance floor to chat up some guy, she "close[s] in on him like a cruise missile." Effie’s the bomb.

He happens to be a severely wounded solider, back from the Middle East and missing a leg. Someone nearby trod on an IED – it wasn’t even his doing – and he was caught in the blast. No fault of his own. His life utterly and inexorably changed. That night sets off a series of explosions in Effie’s life.

Because Owen’s writing about the unexpected turns that take one’s life, there’s no guessing where his play’s going. His plot swerves like a getaway car. Just when you think you’re watching one kind of play, it becomes another. You expect Effie’s past to catch up with her and suddenly – no – she’s pregnant. And alone. And in early labour. Those twists and turns make this an incredibly satisfying watch, not least because each is entirely possible. Effie’s not in control of her own life, but nor is she buffeted by arbitrary external forces.

The scope of all this is remarkable – a genuinely tragic downfall in little over an hour – and Owen treads a neat line, empathising with Effie without ever condoning her actions or her attitude. As in Violence and Son at the Royal Court, which marked a return to prominence for the Welsh playwright, he has a keen eye for an ethical conundrum. Call it the midwife’s dilemma: two expectant mothers with three babies on the way. One needs you in an ambulance en route to another hospital. The other needs you here.

In Greek mythology, Iphigenia was the child sacrificed for a nation. Agamemnon killed her that Greece might prevail in its war against Troy. Here, her equivalent is killed on the altar of austerity: the short-term cost of that "long-term economic plan." A life lost to balance the nation’s books. A sacrifice today for the sake of tomorrow. Who knows how many more are out there? Iphigenia in Stoke. In Diss. In Frome. In Sale. In Neath. In Notts. Iphigenia all over. Crushing.

Iphigenia in Splott ran at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh 24th – 30th August.