"Suddenly it’s a lump of plastic and metal and not my best friend…”
After the play finished there was life still as the magnificent Milly Thomas stopped her ovation to point out that the play had been produced with the support of the Samaritans, a charity close to her heart and a vital resource for those for whom a conversation can make all the difference. I was very glad that Milly spoke… relieved she broke the spell of her mesmerising performance and stepped through the forcefield of the fourth wall to connect with us. Really glad she was alright.
We’ve all varying experience of mental illness, there’s not a single family unaffected and we all recognise the symptoms based on our own lives or those we know. For some the thought of self-destruction is unimaginable but others have lived it, brothers, fathers, mothers or sisters absenting themselves because they could see no other way forward.
Milly’s play starts off with her character Alice coolly observing her dead body on the mortuary slab; she carries on almost as if alive, the same speech patterns and sense of humour you’d expect from any twenty-something Londoner.
For Milly the mortuary is just another part of experience and she reacts as anyone would to the look of the female mortician as she “judges” her for wearing a bra to her deathbed and the male for putting his hands where he shouldn’t.
|Milly Thomas - all pictures courtesy of Richard Southgate|
Her parents arrive, and she views them with well-worn diffidence, as both react exactly as she expects as it she’s just broken any of the dozens of petty rules governing the daily loving drudgery of family life.
But it’s early days and our dead girl will find that everything changes when you can no longer use your mobile or reach out to your friends. Also, once you’re passed away you find out who your friends really are… and your relatives too.
Alice’s afterlife is full of revelations as her parents act up – “this is better than the time Mum reversed up the motorway after missing the turn-off to Chessington World of Adventures…” and brother Rob self-medicates with coke as he “bottles” it all up. Posh Aunty Isobel arrives to take charge and relieve her little sister after Alice’s “selfishness” and relishes the role of “funeral planner”.
All parts are performed by Milly and her transitions are incredible not just across character but also emotion: it’s genuinely startling to see an actor running through walls at this incredible pace, a smile fully formed as tears still role down her face: this is exceptional expression.
“I can’t believe I stayed with you so long because I was frightened of being alone…”
There’s humour too and some wonderfully off-hand and graphic descriptions of her own and other sexual activities. Best friend Ellie – a successful barrister – is seen making love with her new man as she’s also pregnant; life has carried on without Alice even for the one she loved the most. Her ex-boyfriend Ben has moved on and not in an impressive way but, as Milly mimes Alice planning her suicide as Ben enters her from an awkward angle… you know they were never for the long term in any respect.
Alice is disconnected in death as much as she was in life only gradually breaking down when thinking of the last time her father picked her up – a moment she ruined after she dropped and broke her phone. The symptoms of her depression are revealed subtly and with poignance: her father picked her up again as she lay dead… in death she tastes emotion long denied even as physical experience is nulled (she cannot taste a Bakewell tart).
Milly makes us really care for Alice and we’re devastated all over again as she relives the moments of her suicide: it has to be this way, no blinking aloud.
Sara Joyce directs with clear intent and invention and uses three mirrors to enhance her actor's presence and to add to the dislocation. Lighting occassioanlly reveals the audience - all rapt and caught between a rythmn of laughter and concern.
Living or dying it's a very personal choice and Milly Thomas, I salute your bravery and skill in producing such intense revealing work. We left in near silence and the play stays with you as you walk to the tube and travel home; I doubt I’ll ever forget it and nor should I. It leaves your heart heavy just as your spirit is moved by the performer’s dexterity and it makes you want to make sure you do what you can while you can.
Dust plays at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th October and tickets can be snagged off the website or Box Office.
IThankYou Theatre rating: ***** Deeply affecting, essential autumnal viewing. Please go and see it.
Dust is produced by award-winning production company Deus Ex Machina Productions and
partners with Samaritans to raise awareness of help available to those in need.
The Samaritans can be contacted toll-free on 116 123, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via their website.