Thursday, August 10, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Dust' at Underbelly Cowgate, 9th August 2017


Dust reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

At first, dying doesn't seem so bad. No-one hassles you, there's no worries about eating, sleeping or shitting and you can go wherever you want. Much like your corpse, death looks kinda chilled out. Or least, it does for Alice, a newlydead suicide who appears liberated by the whole affair. It seems that death has done what antidepressants never could and cured her depression, which makes sense, you can't have fucked up serotonin levels if you don't have a brain!

Over the course of Dust, Alice unravels her life, drifting invisibly between her family and friends and taking in their reactions to her death, as well as intermittently flashing back to the unhappy chain of events that terminated with pills and razorblades.

Written and performed by Milly Thomas, Dust yo-yos between sardonic chirpiness and bottomless existential blues. Alice is compelling company from the off, beginning the show in dialogue with her corpse as she apologises for the way she's mistreated it over the years and also ogling the way her pallid skin is attractively 'marbled'. In a weirdly touching moment she crouches down between her own legs to get a glimpse of her own genitals. Sure they're just beginning to decompose and her labia are flecked with dried blood (there is an impressively gross moment earlier when the mortician removes her moon cup), but hey - when else are you going to get the chance to peek up your own chuff?

After the morgue, she drifts back to her friends and family, whose grief and loss is played straight. It's moving stuff, particularly the moments when her father breaks down and lets out an animalistic bellow as he hugs her corpse, the blank-faced stare of her detached stoner brother, or the guilty tears of her ex-boyfriend as he receives an exceedingly miserable blowjob. 

Alice uneasily observes them, cracking jokes to try and puncture the tension. But while she has a very well developed shield of glibness that can deflect most emotional shit, this stuff hurts. Throughout Dust, a slow sense of guilt builds up in Alice as she repeatedly sees the consequences of her suicide, guilt that soon combines with the frustrations that come when you divorce the world of the living.

Alice's life was a chaotic spiderweb of anxiety, pain and misery, surrounded by people whose awkward, well-meaning help just made it worse. The only moments of purity and control came at the end of a knife, the pain of self-inflicted wounds briefly overriding away all the misery. Everything sucked and the future looked crappy. I hesitate to say that Alice makes a good argument for committing suicide but you can absolutely understand her motivation.

Dust is not pro-suicide, but rather than make a saccharine argument about the essential sanctity of life, Thomas emphasises the downsides of death. Removed from the living, Alice is cursed to permanently observe: having to cope with small annoyances like not being to use her smartphone ("it's just a lump of metal and plastic now") to bigger stuff like, y'know, being trapped forever in an isolated purgatory with no chance of escape. 

In Dust, the true tragedy of suicide is its absolute finality, arguing that sure, life may be utter shit right now, but as long as you're alive there's the possibility that things might improve. Hope is fragile, and in the pitch black of depression it can seem absent, but it never truly disappears. But Dust explains that, after death, hope is gone. You are trapped in aspic, preserved only in the memories of your loved ones. When Alice slowly realises this she can only scream "I'M STILL HERE!", as if the uncaring void gives a shit.

Milly Thomas walks paths most playwrights wouldn't dare tread, her style often reminding me of the darker works of Chris Morris. But while her other plays always contain eye-opening scenes and kickass dialogue, I've taken issue with their structures as a whole. But I've got no issues with Dust - this is a complex and bold piece of writing that makes a great philosophical argument at the same time as being really goddamn entertaining and beautifully performed. I've rarely seen a standing ovation so well earned.

Dust is at Underbelly Cowgate Aug 10-14, 16-27. Tickets here.

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