FringeReview UK 2018
The award-winning Dust returns for a third run, after Edinburgh, and Soho at the Trafalgar Studio 2, via DEM Productions. It’s directed as before by Sara Joyce, the set by Anna Reid a simple mortuary trolley-slab where three mirrors reflect us back to Alice, Thomas’ character. It’s lit with a spectral beauty by Jack Weir. Max Perryment’s sound is similarly scraped round the edges. Till October 13th.
There’s a poem of Robert Graves ‘The Suicide in the Copse’: ‘The suicide, far from content,/Stared down at his own shattered skull: Was this what he meant?’ But whereas Graves’ ghost is tethered to his copse, all his reading ‘a year-old sheet of sporting news,/A crumpled schoolboy essay’, writer/performer Milly Thomas’ gets about.
Or her revenant Alice does. And much good it does her. The good it does us in seventy-five minutes, though, as Thomas hopes, could be incalculable. And she directly addresses us at the end about the Samaritans. It’s personal and so nearly happened. Laughter here is a slice of death. Dust is a small masterpiece about what not to do to yourself. That includes suicide though there’s options not to take along the way, a minus menu of mistakes, mis-taking what happens next. The one thing sassy Alice gets is laughter, and that has its literal black holes.
Though its tone is Fleabag crossed with a little of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis (and there’s oblique homage here), it’s the clinical depression Thomas writes of, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s exploration of guilt and bereavement, that makes these all kin. Dust and Fleabag are among the most devastating of Millennial-age comedies.
The award-winning Dust returns for a third run, after Edinburgh, and Soho at the Trafalgar Studio 2 via DEM Productions. It’s directed as before by Sara Joyce, the set by Anna Reid a simple mortuary trolley-slab where three mirrors reflect us unnervingly back to Alice, Thomas’ character, and she to herself. One woman’s afterlife gleams in chrome and black. It’s mesmerizing, tight and lit with a spectral beauty by Jack Weir: halos, alien edges, a stabbing darkness visible, centred rivetingly on the way Thomas moves, mobile but tethered to her slab, centre stage in this diminutive space within touching distance. Max Perryment’s sound is similarly scraped round the edges. It’s liminal, a momentary mobile phone, the sound a mortuary might make when you wake in one. Far-off whooshes of the living near the dead.
‘I think this is the end’ Thomas begins stirring on the mortuary slab, and sassy Alice spins an affirmatory gloss on her faintly decomposing self. She preens at her own corpse: her ‘muscles have the texture of butter’ and ‘I look like someone’s fit dead wife from a period drama’.
The intrusive looks and actions of two doctors infuriate her, probing, removing clothes she speculates is a turn-on for one, or in another judgmentally noting she still wears a bra. Free to inspect herself from lovers’ angles, she explores her labia and starts a clotted blood flow. Andrew Marvell once wrote of grief: ‘It is as if one has to dissect oneself, and read the anatomy lesson.’ There’s a clue. Alice herself conducts her own autopsy; meticulous, mordant, unflinching. What’s curiously absent which might simply be too shocking, is any hint at a real post-mortem. Given Thomas’ ‘soapbox’ as she calls it, acting as aversion therapy, one wonders if this was edited out.
There’s a crucial point not brought back till later when Alice’s parents identify her corpse. Her father grief-stricken hauls her up from the slab in a last shuddering hug. Alice explores her parents’ home, her hapless brother Robbie, already drug-addicted: ‘we’re a hairy family’ she jokes knowingly later on when her brother does something astonishing.
And each of her characters, in Thomas’ slightly inflected tones, come alive and differently. For though we see them through her deadpan eyes, bittered through little jokes and complicit with her millennial-speak, Thomas allows the cracks to grow through her smashed iPhone, her rage at being cut off from virtual reality – her one true and false net – when her father awkwardly tries hugging her. And there’s her embarrassing friends, one whose clam-shell cellphone sticks so last-decade out of her pocket. Now she can read her own phone apparently, but not answer anyone.
There’s Emily. She can’t believe her best friend who finally can’t take Alice’s suicide attempts any more in one of the flashback scenes. She’s now let Alice’s room – though after Alice has died – to a French tenant. After her initial hissy though, Alice tenderly notes Emily’s new lover isn’t doing it for her. There’s clearly a pulse or charge from the beyond and Alice can just make her presence felt: she tenderly inserts her fingers to make Emily come. Then she discovers Emily’s pregnant and a wash of furious emotions start up. Bringing a child into this world?
The world where she ducks into Warren Street Tube and looks at the dead faces of the living and eats a financier’s Pret with jam, seeds which now will never bear fruit. This is a play worth studying though Thomas is so overwhelming in her own part it’s difficult to imagine just reading, or anyone else inhabiting her space.
There’s aunt Isabel too, the ‘fascist, right-wing’ horribly coping and angry organiser of everything, who decides her parents, Alice’s grandparents, needn’t even know Alice has died (that’s a bit hard to believe, but possible). Even here though, there’s a moment when infuriating Isabel, who’s explosively screamed at to get out by her sister at one point, proves human.
In a key line for her depression Alice notes keen-eyed, ‘anger coming for me’. During all this time Alice’s sexualised self seems to exist, gliding overran iteration of eighteen lovers like her different drugs. It simply proves the disconnect between what we might think depression’s like (often equated with a total cessation of sex) and one person’s experience. Modes of suicide come to Alice when Ben her nice rich boyfriend’s humping her from behind (‘penis like a child’s drawing of a mushroom’ by the way). As he does so, she’s counting the ways to kill herself. Her wrists’ thick scar-tissue makes that difficult, though she tries later. Heights terrify her.
But unlike Dorothy Parker she doesn’t conclude she might as well live. There’s that annoyingly graunchy lid of Temazepam. Her iteration earlier of drugs does invoke 4.48 just as her precise waking at dawn. Dust is full of other lists – the photos on Ben’s family’s home, including ones of her. That’s when she finds him crying as another girl lovingly blows him and his grief explodes too. All of this is a discovery too late.
The climax is of course the funeral, and what people do. Not really the old schoolfriends like ‘slutty Maddy’ and others who sneer at the wrong choice of music, or finally antique choices from her fifteen-year-old self. Thomas wrenches this to an overwhelming witness and realisation that though there’s no closure there’s a single detail she’s forgotten.
Thomas is screamingly funny before she’s screaming, deadpan and icily furious, then suddenly smiling. Weir’s lighting tracks her different modes, moods and the way she both centres her body then leaps up on her slab and down again. Lying flat and foetal is an act of courage and terrible surrender. Thomas is a mesmeric performer and you wonder what she might do next, with her own material or anyone else’s.
Thomas has much to tell us about depression, friendship, familial ties, sexuality and coping. Mostly though she reanimates the point of living from someone hopelessly stuck on the other side of the glass. Was this what she meant? ‘I think this is the end.’
This is outstanding. See it.