Theatre Review: Dust, Soho Theatre ‘Breaking Down the Stigma Around Mental Illness’

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As she was taking her bows at the end of this powerful and, at times, deeply traumatic play, Milly Thomas – who both wrote and performs in this one-woman show – asked for a break in the applause so that she could say a few unscripted words. She hoped that this play, which examines the repercussions of a suicide, would contribute to the de-stigmatisation of mental illness, and encouraged all those struggling privately to speak up, and for those around them to listen.

Well, Dust is certainly part of a growing interest in examining depression in theatre yet what marks this out is its original perspective, and its willingness to centre the story around a thoroughly unlikeable young woman.

Alice (Milly Thomas) has recently committed suicide. We know this because she tells us this – “I’ve been dead for three days.” Her spirit is hanging around the morgue, observing the effect of death on her body that was once full of life. But this isn’t a mournful Alice – far from it. Instead, this woman is getting a kick from being dead, from finally succeeding in what she had wanted to do for so long. And now that she is dead, she is off to check out how her family and friends are reacting to her death.

There is humour here – more than you’d expect. Alice is spritely and sarcastic, but this humour soon reveals itself as uncomfortable. Alice jabs at and demeans all those who tried to love her in life. As she wanders through their kitchens and bedrooms, her mocking remarks are cutting and serve as a dark revelation on what it must have been like to have Alice in your life when she was alive.

In many ways, this play reminded me of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s seminal memoir, Prozac Nation, in its readiness to show unsympathetic portrayals of sufferers. Here, Alice is selfish, and self-centred, which is not uncommon. This play is cleverly pulling at and tangling our sympathies. We start to dislike Alice and, whisper it quietly, we begin to think that perhaps it might be better for all those she left behind that Alice is now gone from their lives.

It’s a nuanced and necessary depiction, and superbly executed, especially as it then throws us back into turmoil once again as Alice confronts the worst part of all – the fact that life will continue without her. Her narcissism that had revelled in the hurt she brought others finds herself crushed by reality.

This show then finishes with one of the most traumatising finales I have seen in some time. So much so that I briefly had to look away. My goodness, there is real power in the prose and performance here, and the production impresses with such physicality from Milly under the watchful eye of director, Sara Joyce.

This is an extremely good production. Fresh, original and with a potent spirit. One that leaves a scar, for sure.

Soho Theatre, London, to March 17, 2018.
All production photos by The Other Richard

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