Equally as emotionally devastating as it is hilarious, Dust, written and performed by Milly Thomas, is an extremely human account of mental illness.
Thomas’ story is one told from the point of view of someone already dead, partly in retrospect and partly as a fly on the wall with the protagonist, Alice, watching her friends and family mourn her suicide. Like Alice, whose ghost awakes in a morgue to find strangers undressing her, Thomas comes to us vulnerable yet unashamed, dressed in a tight beige bodysuit, in what is an incredibly brave production that lesser writers and performers would shy away from.
Dust had an award-winning, sell-out Edinburgh Fringe run last year, and it’s easy to see why. The writing is sensational. Descriptions of graphic sex acts, tirades of shouted curse words and frequent blisteringly dark one-liners are mingled with moments of great sensitivity. One of the most powerful moments where Thomas employs this technique is while she sits on the table in the morgue flitting through conversations from the year before her death. Humorous and relatable, she throws around sassy remarks about her best friend’s concealer use and references to her annoying Aunt, a brilliant character who we meet early on. It takes a while to realise that the phrase “I’m fine,” is being repeated every few lines. The tell-tale signs of depression creeping up on the audience like they did on Alice; “I’m fine,” meaning the complete opposite.
You don’t need to take my word for the brilliance of Thomas’ writing, her accolades speak for themselves. She has been a member of the Royal Court Writers’ Group, the Channel 4 Writing Scheme, ‘Headstart’ – a group of ten playwrights assembled by Headlong Theatre and Blacklisted Films, as well as shortlisted for the Old Vic 12. Her storytelling ability finds its power in the details. She paints a picture of Alice in both life and death; Mooncups, the scars on her wrists, the rows of family photos lining the walls of her boyfriend’s house, her obsessive need to read sad Facebook posts about herself, even the type of lipstick used to prepare her for the open casket.
Thomas creates a world without the need for scenery or other actors; although Dust is a one-woman show, it doesn’t feel like it. In telling her story, Alice often imitates her family and friends. Thomas’ enviable ability to switch in seconds between rage, sadness, and curiosity when playing her mum and dad and then herself, watching as a ghost, is mesmerising. Accents are also a forte of hers. As Ellie, Alice’s best friend, who appears towards the end of the performance, Thomas bursts into a flawless Scottish accent – this was met with a lot of laughter at the performance I saw. This really is an actor who I feel will one day be a household name; I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
Dust is bold and necessary. As I was leaving the theatre, one of the audience members burst into a flood of tears. I was close to doing so too, I must admit. There is no one reason for Alice’s suicide, but an inability to understand her depression is a central part of it. If only Alice had been able to open up a dialogue like Thomas is, then perhaps this story would have been a very different one. I recommend this production to anyone who has a friend or a parent who does not understand mental illness, taking them to see Dust might just change that. In Milly’s words, “Please talk to each other. Not talking is killing us.”