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: The Red Lion at Trafalgar Studios 2

There’s a clip from The IT Crowd in which Moss and Roy, in a bid to impress some new guy friends, have ended up at a football match. “Hooray,” says Moss unenthusiastically. “He’s kicked the ball.”

I must confess this is pretty much how I feel about football (though I might have used another IT Crowd gem – “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” – at work a few times, just for fun). But I also know that for many people it’s more than a sport; it’s a way of life. There’s even a certain theatricality about it: 22 players performing for an excited audience who are all thoroughly invested in a happy outcome – for their side, anyway. And I can’t deny feeling a grudging respect for the fans who give up their time and money to devotedly follow their team come rain or shine, good times or bad.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

Patrick Marber took that devotion to another level a few years ago, when he became the joint owner of his local football team to save it from bankruptcy. And this passion is both the inspiration for and the central theme of The Red Lion, in which three men see their fortunes rise and fall in the sweaty confines of a players’ changing room. Kidd is the wheeler dealer manager of an unnamed semi-professional football team – relocated under director Max Roberts to the North East of England. Yates is a local legend; once a star player, then a manager, now he’s the kit man, but still as loyal as ever to the club he loves. And then along comes Jordan, a star player in the making. Both Kidd and Yates have plans for the young man’s future – but with one of them driven by money and the other by honour, there’s no way those plans can ever coincide.

While Patrick Connellan’s locker room set is undeniably impressive in its attention to detail (you can even smell the Deep Heat), the play’s real power lies with its cast of three incredible actors, each of whom brings something different to the table. Dean Bone is a picture of youthful naivety and helplessness as Jordan, a pawn referred to most often by the other two men as simply “the kid”, while John Bowler’s fragile Yates speaks his lines with a loving, almost hypnotic caress that can make even a non-believer appreciate football’s poetry. Last but definitely not least, Stephen Tompkinson gives a powerhouse performance as Kidd – one minute he has us roaring with laughter, the next he’s apoplectic with fury, and the next broken by the threat of losing everything that matters to him. All three actors know how to deliver a funny line, and do it brilliantly, but it’s the moments when they face the possibility of life outside the four walls they’ve come to call home that really make an impact.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

It might help to be a football fan – or at least a little bit in the know – to keep up with the play’s fast-paced dialogue as the three characters dissect matches and haggle over transfer deals. But the good news for the rest of us is that you don’t really need to know anything about football to enjoy this play. At its heart, The Red Lion is a story about the complex relationships between three men from different generations, with nothing in common but their love of the game. And that love – poured into every line of the script and felt in each moment of three excellent performances – is more than a little infectious; I reckon even Moss would be impressed.

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Review: Disco Pigs at Trafalgar Studio 2

Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs begins with its two characters reenacting their births – on the same day, in the same hospital – as they squeeze head first through a gap in the curtains. This original, funny and slightly grotesque opening sets the scene for what follows – a story that will amuse, shock and move us all at the same time.

Fast forward… and those same two characters, who we now know refer to themselves as Pig (Colin Campbell) and Runt (Evanna Lynch) are turning 17. They’ve been inseparable their whole lives, to the exclusion of everyone else – but now adulthood is looming on the horizon, is it possible they might be heading down different paths? Maybe – but not before one last wild night out at the legendary Palace Disco… What could go wrong?

Photo credit: Alex Brenner
The effect of Disco Pigs overall is rather dizzying. The pace of John Haidar’s production rarely lets up, and there’s so much going on from a physical, linguistic, emotional and even symbolic point of view, that it’s difficult to decide what to deal with first. The final scenes hit particularly hard, because they tell a story that will resonate with everyone, if not in the detail then certainly in the emotional impact. As the lights fade, we’re left to wonder if any of what we’ve just seen is actually real, or if it’s a metaphor for the inevitable journey into adulthood we all eventually have to make.

There are several star attractions in the play. First, the actors – Evanna Lynch and Colin Campbell – who are both enchanting to watch, albeit in an uncomfortable, distressing kind of way. As Pig, Campbell’s red-faced, dripping with sweat and bouncing with restless energy, flipping from comedy dance moves to physical violence in the blink of an eye. Lynch’s Runt, in contrast, is icily cool and detached, prone to drifting off into a daydream about the life she could have if she can only break free from Pig’s increasingly intense devotion. Both actors capture the childlike behaviour and vulnerability of teenagers who act tough only to cover up the insecurities beneath the surface.

Another unique and fascinating element of the play is its use of language. Between themselves, Pig and Runt speak a mixture of the Cork dialect and their own unique code. It’s impossible to understand every word, though there’s always just enough there to keep up with the story – and somehow the more unintelligible their conversations become, the clearer our understanding of the pair’s guarded, exclusive relationship. When Runt drifts away mentally from her friend, her speech becomes much clearer, which serves the double purpose of giving the audience a brief respite and filling in gaps in the plot, and emphasising the difference between the world in which Runt lives, and the what if? world of her imagination.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner
The direction and design of the play take a blank set, furnished only with a battered TV, and make it come alive through light, sound and movement. Wherever Pig and Runt go, we can follow them and picture the scene – whether it’s a busy bar, a moving cab or a quiet spot by the sea. Later, haze and lasers combine with a soundtrack of classic 90s dance hits to recreate the euphoric atmosphere of the Palace Disco and transport us back to our own teenage years.

Disco Pigs is a 75-minute rollercoaster, and though it’s a short play, the relentless physical pace and emotional intensity are such that any longer might be too much for both audience and actors. Simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and horrifying, its power lies largely in the fact that Pig and Runt, even with their strange language and dysfunctional behaviour, are ultimately just like us; the route may be a little different, but their final destination is the same as everyone else’s. And in this respect, Disco Pigs is as fresh and relevant now as it was 20 years ago.

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Review: Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.

In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.

Photo credit: Robert Day

The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)

The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.

Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.

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Review: Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road at Trafalgar Studios

Keith Stevenson’s Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road became a cult hit when it opened in the States in 2012 – even spawning two equally well received sequels – and it’s not difficult to see why. Transferring from London’s White Bear Theatre to Trafalgar Studio 2 under director Harry Burton, this joyously bonkers little story about a bunch of misfits in a remote West Virginia motel is 70 all too short minutes of good-natured fun.

Mitch (Robert Moloney) has just lost his job at the local spork factory, had his car set on fire and been kicked out by his girlfriend. When he answers an ad for a roommate placed by the eccentric but loveable JD (Keith Stevenson), little does he realise things are about to get even worse. Sleazy motel landlord Flip (Michael Wade) think he’s gay, next door neighbour Marlene (Melanie Gray) thinks he’s David Schwimmer – and then there’s Tommy (Alex Ferns)…

Photo credit: Gavin Watson

It’s all barking mad, but very enjoyably so; an hour of pure escapism in which literally anything could – and does – happen. The larger than life characters prove to be a cautionary tale in the dangers of judging by appearance; they might look like stereotypes, but none of them is quite what they seem. This is particularly true for Keith Stevenson’s JD, possibly the nicest man in the world, whose imposing stature hides a gentle nature, kind heart and interesting back story. In light of said back story, it later seems fitting that it’s JD who delivers the moral of the story, which is simply this: be kind. As he himself points out, that’s not something we should need to be reminded of – yet somehow in today’s often self-obsessed world it ends up feeling like something of a revelation.

Simon Scullion’s set is cosy and lived-in, a wood-panelled motel room littered with JD’s clothes, possessions and casually discarded mini vodka bottles. The familiarity with which all the characters enter and make themselves at home helps establish the relationship between the friends; JD is the centre of the group, the one everyone comes to when they need support – and he in turn is always ready with a supply of tuna sandwiches and a few words of advice.

Stevenson’s irresistible JD has excellent support from Robert Moloney as Mitch, whose appearance grows increasingly dishevelled even as his inner turmoil settles. Alex Ferns’ poet/gangster Tommy revives the crazy-eyed menace of evil Trevor (that’s his famous Eastenders character from 15 years ago, for younger readers). Michael Wade is hilariously creepy as Flip the landlord, but even he has a protective streak where JD’s concerned. And hysterical drug addict Marlene is played to perfection by Melanie Gray, who makes her likeable and sympathetic where she could have been incredibly annoying.

Photo credit: Gavin Watson

If I have one complaint about the play, it’s that – unlike its unwieldy title – it’s too short; we can only hope the sequels soon make their way to London so we can find out what the gang get up to next. Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Road is not deep and meaningful, and is at times utterly bizarre. But it’s also fantastic entertainment that leaves you with a smile on your face and a warm fuzzy feeling inside. And a craving for tuna sandwiches. (Just me? Oh.)

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