Writer: Milly Thomas
Director: Sara Joyce
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A report produced in August 2018 by the charity The Children’s Society found that 22% of 14-year-old girls in the United Kingdom admitted to having self-harmed. Alice in Milly Thomas’s play, a 75-minute monologue, was a little older, but her body still shows the scars from self-inflicted wounds as it lies on a slab in a morgue.
Dealing with suicide, Dust is far removed from the idea of James Stewart teetering on the brink and deciding that he has a wonderful life after all. When the play begins, there is no way back for Alice, she has already been dead for three days. In the afterlife, she looks down on the shell that she once inhabited, still obsessing over body image and she sees her father hugging her corpse with the affection that he had never shown to her when she was living.
Thomas herself plays Alice as a rebellious, outwardly assured young adult who views her impending death as an adventure as well as an escape. Almost every word is tinged with sarcasm as she looks critically at her life from the perspective of an outsider. She sees herself lying in bed in the early hours scrolling through Instagram, she drinks, takes anti-depressants and recreational drugs and partakes in meaningless sex acts. Her family is typically, rather than exceptionally, dysfunctional, but Thomas’ point is that it is the fact that there seems so little out of the ordinary about Alice is what makes her story so alarming.
As writer and performer, Thomas has to work hard to prevent the play from coming across like a Government health warning. She does this with a constant flow of gentle, occasionally morbid humour, particularly strong when Alice finds fault with her own funeral. “Think of coffins like wedding dresses” insists an insensitive, fashion-conscious aunt, image being paramount until the end and even after it.
Thomas points to no single cause for Alice’s mental health problems, the issues emerging as jumbled from her tangled mind. Low self-esteem, peer pressure, social media, declining moral standards and lack of human warmth all come into the frame as her solitary figure is reflected in three full-length mirrors in Anna Reid’s simple set design.
Director Sara Joyce’s production has a jerky, nervous feel, underpinned by throbbing music, and Jack Weir’s stark lighting helps to project the image of a life in torment and an afterlife in solitude. The play offers little solace and, for all its humour, Dust cannot avoid being a discomforting experience.
Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Richard Southgate