Review: Dust at Soho Theatre

It’s said the beginning is a very good place to start – but Milly Thomas’ award-winning Dust does things a little differently, and starts at the end. Well, sort of.

After years of living with depression, Alice has just committed suicide – and wakes to find herself looking down at her own corpse on a morgue table. Initially, she’s fascinated by her new perspective and the freedom being dead gives her to go anywhere, see anything. But as she watches her loved ones grieve, and makes a few unwanted discoveries, it begins to dawn on her what she’s done – to them and to herself.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

It rather goes without saying that Dust is not an easy show to watch, but almost immediately it’s obvious that it is a vitally important one. Alice’s death was supposed to be an escape, but instead it becomes a perfect metaphor for the depression that drove her to kill herself: trapped in a world where she can’t talk to anyone, she’s forced to watch the people she loves go on with their lives, while she remains stuck.

Dust also makes the important point that depression doesn’t necessarily mean being miserable all the time. The show itself is surprisingly funny for a story about suicide, thanks largely to Alice’s own frank, unapologetic sense of humour, though much of the comedy comes with a sting in the tail. Alice’s posh aunt, for instance, who bursts into the house uninvited and takes over everything, is hilarious to watch, but also expresses some unforgivable – but sadly not as shocking as they should be – views about her niece’s life and death.

There’s also a great scene that takes us rapidly through a year in the life of Alice – a year in which she went to parties, gave her best friend makeup advice, had sex with her boyfriend – which serves as a powerful reminder that just because someone seems to be having a good time, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not privately suffering. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is probably one of the best and most enlightening portrayals of depression I’ve ever seen on stage.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

It’s not just the writing, either; Milly Thomas’ performance, directed by Sara Joyce, is equally outstanding. Her Alice is witty and loyal and attractive, so that even without knowing her, we’re sad she’s dead – but she’s also selfish and bitchy and foul-mouthed and real enough to ensure that her story never feels overly simplistic (despite a passing reference to it, this is not Ghost). Her bewilderment and anguish as she looks back on her decision is almost physically painful to watch. At the same time, Thomas brings each of the characters and settings around her to life so vividly that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a solo show, on a set populated only by a few mirrors and a morgue table. It’s an inspired and inspiring performance, which leaves you shaken and moved, but also entertained and educated about this huge and complex issue.

Dust‘s run at Soho Theatre is sold out – and for good reason – but if you can beg, borrow or steal* a ticket I’d absolutely recommend it. Don’t expect an easy hour; this is a show about suicide and depression, after all, and one that doesn’t hold back on the details, either. But it also makes an eloquent contribution to the conversation about mental health, and that alone makes it a must-see piece of theatre.

*Don’t really steal, obviously.

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Review: Happy yet? at the Courtyard Theatre

“Why can’t you just be happy?” asks one of the characters in Katie Berglöf’s debut play, Happy yet? To people who’ve never lived with depression or anxiety, they can be difficult concepts to understand – particularly, perhaps, in Sweden, which is famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world.

Enter Torsten Sandqvist. He’s nearly 40, unemployed, and living in his brother and sister-in-law’s attic room in Stockholm. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been writing a play, but between staying in bed until 3pm and going out with a new girl each night, he’s not getting much work done. As his family grow ever more frustrated, the only person Torsten can really talk to is his young niece, Nina – but she never goes to school, and nobody else seems aware of her presence…

Inspired by the traumatic personal experience of losing her uncle to suicide, Katie Berglöf has written an enlightening, often troubling but just as often unexpectedly humorous depiction of what depression looks and feels like from both sides of the story. The most important lesson we learn is that depression doesn’t necessarily mean you’re miserable all the time. On a good day, Torsten is hilarious, wildly optimistic and everyone’s best friend (at one point, he convinces a police officer who’s come to arrest his brother to go drinking with him instead). Unfortunately he also can’t stop lying to make himself look good, and after one crazy scheme too many, it’s no surprise his brother’s patience is starting to wear a little thin.

A charismatic David Beatty does a great job of navigating Torsten’s highs and lows, in a world that tries its best but never quite gets to grips with what it’s like to be him. This world is represented by Piers Hunt, Molly Merwin and Lucinda Turner as his brother, sister-in-law and girlfriend, who clearly love him and want to help but have no idea how. The play aims to explore the impact of mental health issues not only on the individual but also on those closest to them, and is careful to make clear that Torsten’s family are suffering too. In fact, the only entirely unsympathetic character in the play is the mental health professional who aggressively questions Torsten about his problems, but offers no answers – unless you also count his unseen parents and other siblings, who we learn rejected him long ago for what they saw as his weakness.

It’s a shame that the play’s ending leaves a few too many unanswered questions – particularly surrounding the ever-present Nina, played by Minnie Murphy. It’s obvious from the start that there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye, but the (almost) complete lack of clues as to how or why she became Torsten’s confidant is a bit frustrating, and I found myself waiting for a revelation that never came.

Even so, the play’s message and intention come through loud and clear. It’s so important to keep talking about mental health, and Happy yet? plays its part by offering a very personal insight into one family’s struggle to find an answer to an unanswerable question. In particular, the play challenges the misconception that happiness is something which can be turned on or off at will, and encourages understanding instead of judgment. And if it feels a little unfinished, that’s okay – this is, after all, a conversation that’s far from over.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉