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BWW Review: DUST, Trafalgar Studios


BWW Review: DUST, Trafalgar Studios

BWW Review: DUST, Trafalgar Studios It isn't often that the trifecta of the writing, directing and acting of a play harmonise perfectly into a deeply satisfying whole, but when that happens - as it does in Milly Thomas's award winning one-person play Dust - it makes for a very thrilling 80 minutes of pure theatre.

It also underlines the immediacy and liveness (that unique selling point of theatre) of the contract between audience and performer, and elucidates why it's an art form that continues to fascinate thousands of years after its genesis. Much of theatre is merely run-of-the-mill, so it's enlivening when a production comes close to blowing you away.

Dust opens with Alice, played by Thomas herself in a flesh-coloured bodysuit, awakening as a spectre to people examining her body as it lies on a stainless-steel table in a morgue. This provides the impetus for Alice to ruminate on how she misused her corporeal remains - pickling it with booze, not practising safe sex, riddling it with antidepressants. In short, not caring.

This also provides the means by which she can examine the life she lived and look in on the grief of family and friends because, as it transpires, she took her own life. This is a ghost story with a difference, a darkly comic dissection of the isolating mental malaise that leads to someone committing suicide and is inspired by Thomas's own struggles with her mental health and her desire to talk about this taboo subject more openly.

Thomas has said that the nature of her depression is that she cannot find a reason in it, and perhaps the fact that there is no obvious reason why Alice became so depressed is exactly the point. Depression is a mystery - one person's suffering is another person's blindspot.

The way that depression can isolate the sufferer is mimicked by the fact that although Alice in death is aware of everything and everyone (we get to know her friends and family through her point of view), she cannot engage with them. In retrospect, it's not surprising that Alice flits from subject to subject like the jump-cut edits in a pop music video. It reflects the dysfunctional, scattered nature of poor mental health.

As an actor, you can't take your eyes off Thomas. She is mesmerising to watch and in complete control of the material she has to perform. She has the ability to switch emotional registers in the blink of an eye, channeling rage, sadness, curiosity and blankness often within the same paragraph of speech. The scene where she is convulsing, retching and itching in her death throes from an overdose of Temazepam and vodka is truly uncomfortable to watch.

This is largely a function of the confidence she can take in the writing, which is sharp, engaging and extremely bawdy, the humour so macabre (ever thought about choosing a coffin in the same way you'd choose a wedding dress? Me neither!) and lacerating that it makes the horror even more abject. Indeed, the script is so precise that no word feels superfluous. It is suffused with (others might say drenched with) earthy references to sex and other bodily functions, but these never feel gratuitous.

Thomas has said, "We did so much script work that it ate into rehearsal time. We wanted to make sure the script was so tight and that was definitely the right decision." All this work on the script is ably aided by other aspects of the production. Sara Joyce's direction is supple and self-assured, making fantastic use of Anna Reid's minimally effective set design, featuring three mirrors in which the audience can see Alice from many sides - reflecting the many voices and personalities that people the play through Alice's point of view.

That works in tandem with Jack Weir's evocation of memory, death and the uncanny in the coolly pastel lighting and Max Perryment's ability to use echo and reverb to mimic a racing heart and the cacophony of voices and volatile emotions that crowd Alice's mind. Altogether, this makes for a memorable and thought-provoking production.

Following sell-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and Soho Theatre, Dust has partnered with charity Samaritans to raise awareness of the help available to people who need it. In bringing Dust to the stage, Thomas is unflinching in bearing her own soul. Remember where you heard her name first as a writer and actor - she's going on to bigger and better things.

Dust at Trafalgar Studios until 13 October

Photo credit: Richard Southgate

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