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Milly Thomas - Dust and Brutal Cessation

Milly Thomas was about to go onstage when she first read the script for the pilot episode of Clique, BBC3's online only Edinburgh set university thriller created by Skins alumni Jess Brittain. The twenty-something actress and writer has been put up as a possible writer on the glossy six part drama by Balloon Entertainment, who she'd worked with on a writers room development project, and who thought she'd be a perfect fit. Here, after all, was a dark thriller that dragged The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie's concept of the crème de la creme into the twenty-first century to look at the power games that can be played among an on-campus elite of young women desperate to make the grade. Thomas was initially sceptical, but after her dressing room read-through, she was smitten.

“Twenty minutes before I was due onstage, and I couldn't stop thinking about it,” says Thomas, as she prepares to bring two original plays to Edinburgh, one of which she will be performing in. “I thought it was brilliant, and even after I went onstage, all I could think about was Holly and Georgia, the two lead characters in the show.”

At the interview, Brittain and soon to be fellow Clique writer Kirstie Swain asked Thomas what had been her own experience of university.

“I said they were probably the worst four years of my life,” she says. “Jess just looked at me and said when can you start? Jess, Kirstie and I all had terrible times at university, and that first day with the three of us was like a support group.”

Thomas went on to write three episodes of Clique, and has recently had a stint on BBC soap, River City. At the moment, however, it is her two Edinburgh shows she is enthused about most. While Brutal Cessation looks at the fallout of an abusive relationship, in Dust, Thomas plays a woman observing her own suicide. Both plays come from a personal place.

“Last year I was in a relationship that wasn't necessarily right for me,” Thomas says of the roots of Brutal Cessation. “I wanted to express something about that, and wrote a scene for a Scratch Night that's now in what we realised when we working on the scene was a much bigger play. I wanted to look at how gendered things have become, and how relationships that should have ended a long time ago can end up on a knife-edge of violence and emotional abuse out of sheer boredom.”

Dust comes from a similar desire to lay bare taboo subject matter.

“I'd had the idea for Dust for ages,” Thomas says, “but I was really frightened of it, because I knew I was going to have to be in it. It's a really personal piece, which in part came out of my fascination with the way we talk about people with depression, and how we can sometimes eulogise them.

“I really value truth in plays. By that I don't mean grief tourism. The last thing I want is for my plays to be masturbatory. I've no desire for that. I just want to do things that ring true, and write about the things that won't let me sleep at night. I've been depressed for so long, but because I'm high-functioning, people don't notice. As a playwright, of course, I want to entertain, but I think there's a responsibility as well in writing about things I really care about and try and render them truthfully. I write about what I don't know. I tried to write about what I do know, but it sounded patronising. When I write, I want to find out about things, so I can discover them together with the audience.”

The timings of the performances of both plays mean that Thomas will be onstage in Dust at the same time Brutal Cessation is being performed, so she won't be able to see it.

“I did that on purpose,” she says. “Once I get up to Edinburgh, my work as a writer on the plays will be done. There's nothing worse than having a writer around, biting their nails like the ghosts of Christmases to come.”

Thomas grew up in Hampshire, and wanted to be an actor from an early age. She went to university, and “hated it” before going to drama school.

“I was really disappointed,” she says, “and wasn't prepared to wait around waiting for my face to fit. I'm not like that. I have to keep moving.”

She started writing in her final year, and her first play, A First World Problem, appeared at Theatre503 in London.

“That was a very exciting time,” Thomas says, and then people asked me what was next, but it had never occurred to me that there would be a next.”

Another play, Piggies, followed in 2015, with Clickbait appearing a year later. Inbetween appearing onstage and on TV in Downton Abbey, Thomas became a member of the Young Writers Lab at Soho Theatre, and took part in a Royal Court Writers' Group led by playwright Stef Smith. Clique followed shortly afterwards.

“When I got Clique, I didn't know if I could write for telly,” Thomas says, “but that naivety's really important. If I know things too well I get worried. If you don't know the rules, you can break them, and that flailing doggy paddle is where the magic happens.

“The great thing about Clique is that it's a female driven vehicle, and all the women in it are having these seemingly wild lives. At it's heart it's about female friendship, ad I wish I'd had that at university. Apart from everything else, it's also sending out a message that you can have stories led by women who aren't necessarily nice to each other. I think what Jess has achieved is astonishing, and I knew as soon as I read it that there wasn't a thing I wouldn't do to work on it.”

Thomas won't be drawn on whether there will be a second series of Clique, there are plans for a new stage play, “a lot bigger than anything I've done before. People who know my work know me for writing sarky women, but this is different.”

Again, she can't say in what way.

“It's so childish,” she laughs, “but I don't want to jinx it.”

Beyond the big play, “I just want to keep on keeping on. I don't ever want to stop acting or writing. They're my favourite things in the world, and I want to keep trying bigger and better things all the time. I hope to keep on writing until I drop dead.”

Dust, Underbelly, August 3-27, 4.40pm; Brutal Cessation, Assembly, August 5-28, 4.20pm.
www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk
www.assemblyfestival.com

The Herald, August 18th 2017

ends

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