Dust is a remarkable play. Remarkable in not only its quality but also its content and style. It’s not like anything else reaching the stage at the moment – especially stages like Soho Theatre, with its enormous reach and central London location. Imagine if Phoebe Waller-Bridge (to whom I’m sure Milly Thomas is tired of being compared) had a millennial theatrical baby with Sarah Kane. Yup. There’s a reason it’s sold out.
Thomas’s writing has not sold out, however. It’s clear she’s saying exactly what she wants – needs – to say. There is no sanitising edit pen, no ‘perhaps your mother wouldn’t like…’. This is particularly commendable when considering the play is inspired by Thomas’ own struggles. We are made to feel uncomfortable because, in life, as humans, we are made to feel uncomfortable. And we are made to feel uncomfortable, too. Thomas’ writing revels in this. It somersaults in the pit of your stomach, it zipwires in the empty place inside you.
The lack of an edit pen trips the play up a few times. Sometimes Thomas’ uses humour because she can, rather than because she should. Her twisted, shocking style has the audience wrapped around its finger, and sometimes this is to the detriment of the play’s narrative continuing – and in the final scenes, in the play’s coming to an end. It seems to end about six times – perhaps reflective of Alice’s own life – but this spluttering style ultimately detracts from the final impact. Alice’s final line – which feels perhaps more Thomas’ than any other – is the ending the playwright wanted, not the one the play needed. We have the message handed to us, rather than it being left for us to consider ourselves, mesmerised and traumatised by, for example, Alice’s beautifully wrought final recollection of her father.
Thomas performs as well as writes the piece, and she performs it as well – if not better – than she writes it. Alice, the central character with whom we spend most of the piece, is a difficult one. She’s petulant, needy, self-obsessed, bitter, cutting, cruel and vulgar. But she’s also depressed. And hilarious, and tender, and misunderstood, and unsupported and young. She doesn’t deserve to die. Somehow Thomas illuminates all of this equally, refracting the different rays of Alice’s personality through the kaleidoscope of human existence. It’s beautiful, complex, overwhelming and to be marvelled at. Thomas uses her own prism of experience – of joy, suffering, love and pain – to project the image of a young woman trapped by her mind, by society and by a system. Alice is really annoying – but is this because she’s suffering? If not, does being annoying discredit her right to support? Thomas never lets us give up on Alice, especially in her final moments.
Thomas’ portrayal of the supporting (or unsupporting) characters in Alice’s life is genius. Her body, in an instant, slips into the shape and form of another: her meek and spluttering mother, her Joanna Lumley of an aunt, her lilting Scot of a best friend. But there is humility alongside the humour. In each portrayal we learn and understand more about the human condition: of how we mourn, how we move on and how we miss – or dismiss – the signs of depression and suicide. Thomas is a joy to watch, even as she breaks our hearts and ends her life.
Sara Joyce’s direction is astute, fast-paced, symbolic but also hugely realistic. The stage is both always and never the same. She integrates sound recording and strobe style light to punctuate and penetrate. The stark, cold set is brilliantly used, and perfectly simple.
Despite some dramaturgical issues (and some small niggles including Thomas’ forty-seven different layers of skin-toned costume and her ghost’s ability to eat a bakewell tart but notunlock an iPhone), Dust is pretty damn good. Impressive, inspiring and agitating, it’s one to see – if you’re lucky enough to have tickets – and Milly Thomas is one to watch, both as an actor and as a writer.