Still in his twenties and labelled one of Britain’s emerging voices in theatre, Alistair McDowell’s X, a far-out drama set in ‘a small research base on Pluto’ feels more down-to-earth than ‘way out.’ Loneliness, dislocation of memory and the psychology of childhood pepper this slow-burner of a play.
The premise seems simple. Astronauts and scientists are marooned on Pluto, time bends and something haunts the station and its crew. Yet, space is never simple. Television actress Jessica Raine is Gilda, the second-in-command astronaut who takes on more responsibility than she can handle, finding it hard to keep everything under control. The crew have come from a barren Earth, whose trees and birds are all but memories, to colonise the furthest reaches of our solar system, Pluto – or the dwarf planet ‘X.’ Having sent transmissions back to the Blue Planet with no response, the crew begins to question everything.
The first act is odd, and not only because of Merle Hensel’s impressive set which sits slightly off-kilter, but because twenty minutes of exposition feels wrong – and it’s intended to. The crew have mundane conversations which, realistically, would have occurred months ago at the beginning of their mission. Questions are answered about our characters’ pasts; Cole (Dharmalingham) the quiet scientist; Ray (D’Silva) the chief who laments the loss of birdsong; Clark (Harkness) the exuberant techie guy; and Mattie (Zmitrowicz) who remains a slight enigma. As Earth remains silent, the crews’ nerves begin to fray and the station becomes a claustrophobic vessel where internal fears bounce off the walls, and time, as we know it, begins to fail them. It is around this point that it becomes clear, ‘X’ also stands for the time in the algorithm needed to fix their flickering, and thus failing, technology.
The Royal Court’s Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, directs this psychological drama with precision, although some of the well-written lines are lost due to a lack of projection and stage placement. Considering McDowell’s growing popularity and reputation, I felt irritated to miss out on some of his writing. The acting, however, was strong throughout, in particular Zmitrowicz’s and Harkness’s performances which lifted the play at moments when it seemed as though it was on repeat. And repeat itself it does. Upon realising that their systems, set to a ‘universal’ time, are beginning to break down, the crew begin to panic. But the horror really sets in as the first act ends with blood spilt, exhibiting audible gasps from the audience.
The second half, replete with all the hallmarks and intensity of a horror film, is where the madness really sets in and the sense of isolation increases. McDowell’s writing is well worth the clamour made about it and if you’re a fan of Beckett, Pinter or Clarke then you will appreciate the numerous references interspersing the production. The mind-twisting dénouement left theatre-goers either grappling with possible meanings or utterly irritated that the playwright hadn’t provided something more ‘neat and tidy’. I personally found the second half riveting, with its horrifying ‘ghosts’, temporal suspension and the disintegration of the mind – all of which transports the viewer to the outer limits of their own imagination.
Whether or not you choose to read X as the archetypal sci-fi nightmare of being lost in space, or a more grounded psycho-thriller about the memories of childhood, this play allows for all interpretations and left me pondering the vastness of life on Earth.