REVIEW: Dust (Soho Theatre)

I’ve often wondered to myself what would happen when I died. Not what would happen to me personally, not wondered about the afterlife or anything like that, but about the people that I would leave behind. What would they think and say? How would they react? Would life be much different without me?

Milly Thomas’ play uses this scenario as a springboard to explore mental health. We begin the play at the end, as we see Alice, a twenty-something high-functioning depressive who has recently committed suicide, see her dead self lying on an examination table. She watches as the doctor pulls out her moon cup. She smells herself, looks at herself properly for the first time, through the eyes of the people she’d slept with. She begins to make the internal external, apologising to the body – the shell- she had lived in, and these deep emotions come to fruition even when removed from the carcass.

Alice watches as her old life unfolds around her, seeing her parents grieving, her brother high on MKAT, her boyfriend having sex with another woman, her newly pregnant best friend. As Alice watches, Thomas  transforms herself into the other characters in Alice’s life. She switches from her stoic mourning father to rabbit-like, high-pitched and frantic mother with ease. She and Sara Joyce’s supple direction morph the bare space (a table and three mirrors) into the various settings she encounters, taking us on a journey not only through her current situation, but through her memories, too.

But this is not a sad play. At least not to begin with. The lights, flashing from green to purple to warm orange, are blinding, and there are several episodes of strobe. The sound design is a background of electronic muttering, of the repeated phrase ‘I remember’, and there’s a shrill note which pierces the ear drums. All this causes us to abruptly focus on Alice as she demands our attention. It is intense, but also darkly hilarious. Alice is crude and unsubtle, recalling the details of the people she’d slept with, joking about being dead and speaking ill of the living. Her thoughts are not held back and her candid nature evoked comparisons to Phoebe Waller-Bridge; there’s definitely something about solo female shows’ mixing of vulnerability and dark comedy being a winner.

Though it is funny, the final act throws several punches. We see Alice in anger at her boyfriend’s betrayal, at her best friend for moving someone else into her room, for being pregnant. We see her want to help, screaming to make things better. A piercing shrill and we are back in the past, Alice being taken from behind, but instead she is more consumed in planning how she’s going to kill herself. Strobe lights. Alice is crying, shouting that she doesn’t know how to make things better, and she is convulsing on the table as the play draws to a close.

Thomas’ writing switches between relatable comedy to hard-hitting in an instant, and tells this story with no fluffy cushions to soften the blow.

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