Interview: Milly Thomas, Dust

Milly Thomas is a London-based actor and writer, whose solo show Dust is about to transfer to the West End, following critically acclaimed runs at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Soho Theatre. The solo show, directed by Sara Joyce, tackles the difficult topic of mental health from a unique viewpoint – that of a young woman who’s just committed suicide.

“This is Alice’s story,” explains Milly. “Alice has depression and decides to take her own life. However, what she isn’t counting on is remaining there, stuck. And in this stuck place she can see the effects of her decision on her family and friends and, ultimately, on her.

“It’s something I feel very passionately about, having had depression and anxiety myself for a while. I think it’s so easy to lose sight of what it means to be high functioning and the real impact of depression on our lives. I hope that it will get people not just to open up about their issues with mental health but also to do more and realise that suicide isn’t the answer. Mental health is spectrum. Suicide is binary: once you’ve died, you are no longer in that conversation and there is no room for hope. This play takes that concept and turns it on its head.”

Dust by Milly Thomas
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Dust has been greeted with widespread acclaim since its debut at last year’s Fringe, for which Milly won an Edinburgh Stage Award. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “I think the biggest surprise is it actually happening at all! And the fact that people have responded to it quite the way they have. I’m very overwhelmed by it and thrilled that it’s helping dent the stigma a bit. With the West End transfer, I think I’m most looking forward to the new audiences. Each time the show has been on the audience has evolved, and I’m so excited to meet the people I’ll be playing with.”

The 75-minute solo show sees Milly playing not only the central character of Alice, but all the people in her life as well. It’s a challenging task, but one she relishes: “Ooh, I love it. I love doing it. I miss it when I’m not doing it! It’s like being on the treadmill in a good way. What I love is that you can’t end game it. When it starts, Alice is in a place of complete denial and almost amusement. Almost giggly. You can’t think about where it’s going or what’s going to happen. It’s only halfway through that you suddenly realise how hard it is and by the end you’re totally out of breath.”

Milly began her career as an actor, and started writing when she graduated from drama school in 2014. Her first full-length play, A First World Problem, opened at Theatre503 in July of that year, followed in 2015 by Piggies and in 2016 by Clickbait, which played to sold-out audiences and an extended run. Last year, she took two shows to Edinburgh – Brutal Cessation and Dust. Her top tip to other aspiring writers is to write as much as possible: “As much and as often as you can. Throw nothing away. Absolutely nothing. Might be gold in five years. Be patient. This is a long game and your age and experience are only going to make your work richer.

“Talk to people. Talk to strangers. Writing is a relationship. Try to make it a loving and fair one where you are kind to each other. Talk to other writers. Talk to directors. Actors, producers, designers, stage managers – talk to people. Find out how it works outside your sphere. Keep interested and open and never be precious. There are different hills to die on and choose them carefully. You’ve only got limited hills! You can’t die on all of them!”

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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