After I’ve gone: Dust at Trafalgar Studios

After I’ve gone: <em> Dust </em> at Trafalgar Studios

Dust stands out for several reasons. First, it’s a one-woman show – written and performed by Milly Thomas. Secondly, it has an unusual premise. It’s the story of a young woman, Alice, who comes back after her suicide to watch the reactions of her family, her boyfriend and friends to the clinical depression which culminated in her death. Finally, the play has a wider message – please don’t kill yourself, there’s help available.

Dust premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 to critical acclaim and transferred to the West End this year. It has already enjoyed a run at Soho Theatre and is now at Trafalgar Studios, a cosy theatre where the audience sits on three sides of the stage. This layout is perfect for the set designed by Anna Reid, which comprises no more than a metal surgery table and three mirrors at the back. Simple, stark and effective.

Before entering, I was given a coloured programme containing notes from the director and writer. In them, Milly Thomas talks candidly about her own battle with mental health issues. Parts of the dialogue certainly benefit from the raw pathos of experience. She adds:

I was very much writing it from the viewpoint of a depressed individual, and having that other voice there and then in turn amplifying the voices of the other characters, it just meant that everyone has a way in. For me, that’s what depression doesn’t allow. It completely shuts you off from everything and everyone and it just absolutely destroys your ability to make connections.

If Thomas’s objective was to create a central character who shuts everyone around her out, she achieved it. The problem is that this makes for a rather one-dimensional protagonist, since Alice’s only response to events is to mock them. Admittedly, she’s witty with her sarcasm; nonetheless, I could not identify with Alice or her struggles, even though I’ve had depression myself too.

Photo: Richard Southgate

Obviously, no one can expect to identify with everyone else who has suffered from depression: our experiences are all different. But if Dust were going to make me talk about the play and the issues of mental illness it raises – another goal that Milly Thomas has said she’d like to achieve – then I personally needed some quality in Alice I could hold on to. Alas, there was none I could find.

This was due in part, I think, to the language Thomas deployed. It’s a challenge for one person to keep an audience entertained for 75 minutes, and hats off to her that she succeeds. Her acting is truly superb. She pulls off every role, whether she’s playing Alice, Alice’s mother, her father, her drug addict brother or any array of relatives. Thomas the actress is a joy to watch.

However, to hold the audience’s attention, Thomas moves rapidly from one scene to another, using sharp bursts of both shock and humour. The opening scene has Alice waking up in the morgue. Within minutes, while crouching beside her own dead body, she makes a point of staring up her vagina, because ‘I’ve always wondered what others could see’.

The audience laughed, of course, as we were probably expected to. In fact, we laughed every few minutes because the humour continued in a similar vein. This directness was refreshing at first, but by a third of the way in, I found my mind wandering, despite some very funny moments. Less is often more, and the play tried hard – I would say too hard – to get laughs. It had to keep the audience focused, and ribald humour was the main means by which it achieved this.

I know the crass language used throughout was intentional; it’s part of the protagonist’s personality, possibly even her coping mechanism. We see the world through Alice’s eyes, and the people around her come across mostly as somewhat predictable stereotypes. Her mother can’t stop crying; her father can’t stand the crying; her boyfriend blames himself for Alice’s suicide and humps another woman in the hope of relief; while her best friend recalls how she reached the end of her tether trying to help Alice and, seeing how unwell Alice was and not knowing what else to do, asked her to move out.

Photo: Richard Southgate

This last was one of the more poignant moments for me. Thomas’s depiction of the helplessness articulated by Alice’s best friend rang very true. In difficult circumstances, people really don’t know what to say or do.

It’s a shame that more is not made of the moment. I wished then for some human connection with Alice – not an explanation or reason or deep understanding, just a small connection – that would make me want to shout ‘Stop, Alice! Don’t kill yourself!’

That moment never came. The scene is snapped off, to make way either for another laugh or for the macabre details of how Alice actually takes her life. Her suicide is graphic, to say the least, and with seats being arranged the way they are inside Trafalgar Studios, I know I wasn’t the only person squirming.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people in the world are affected by mental health disorders at some point in their lives, while data from MIND says that in England one in six people report anxiety or depression every single week. Mental health is an important, highly topical issue of our time. I did not end up caring whether Alice lived or died, but that doesn’t mean that Dust isn’t a worthwhile endeavour. We all need to talk more about mental health, with or without Dust.

Dust will play until 13 October at Trafalgar Studios.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke is the author of The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds and When the Future Comes Too Soon, historical fiction novels set in British Malaya that have been Amazon best-sellers. Siak is completing her third book. She has been interviewed by British, US and Asian media, including the BBC World Service, and her articles have appeared in the Independent, National Geographic Traveller and History Today. In addition to writing, Siak is a speaker on diversity issues. At the London Book Fair 2018 she talked about the tensions between identity and diversity in the context of her stories.

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