Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Space fascinates and terrifies us in equal measure; we have a need to explore, chart and conquer but the expanse and infinity of Space and what might be lurking in it can make the human race seem inconsequential. So many films and TV shows have been devoted to inter-planetary exploration from Star Wars and Star Trek to Interstellar, Gravity and Dr Who, but very few plays, which makes X by Alistair McDowell at the Royal Court a hotly anticipated theatre event.
Set on Pluto at some unspecified time in the future, X is the story of the four remaining inhabitants of a research base who are waiting to be rescued. Everything is controlled from home including the clocks but something is wrong, the Earth, a shadow of the planet we know, has gone silent and the astronauts are alone. As they unpack their fears to each other and play out their frustrations, they cling desperately to a hope that they will be found. But something else is on the base and the crew fear for their safety.
Alistair McDowell’s play is a masterclass in the building of suspense and the slow unveiling of character. The text is slow-burning and unafraid to play with long periods of silence and darkness, while subtly referencing all the classic space-story tropes of a captain forced into leadership, the sense of abandonment and what it means to be human out in the darkness. Told largely as a series of duologues, it’s tense, engrossing and at times psychologically creepy, with a building sense of danger. Most interestingly it plays on two major Space-related fears – that of nothingness and of there being something else out there.
The first Act seems quite straightforward, the time on the digital clock alters between scenes and, fairly conventional, though gripping, conversations occur among the crewmates. Initially, it is boredom, petty frustrations, and dreams of home captured in a game of Guess Who that keep the story moving and prevents the characters from dwelling on their abandonment. But then time starts to jumble and Act Two is a whirling confusion of memories and delusions as loneliness affects the remaining astronauts, which reaches a fever pitch in which the audience is unsure how much, if any of what they’ve seen is real.
The acting is uniformly excellent, led by Jessica Raine as the nervous and uncertain new Captain Gilda who cannot get the crew to respect or obey her and there’s also an underlying hysteria in Raine’s performance which makes the change of pitch in the second Act convincing. Darrell D’Silva is superb as the long-serving Ray who clings to his tangible memories of Earth as it was, abhorring the digital world he now inhabits and movingly revealing he has nothing to go home to. James Harkness as Clark uses his cynicism as a shield, providing a lot of the play’s humour before succumbing to his fears later in the play. All are united by a strong sense of loneliness that presumably drew them to Pluto in the first place, longing for home but with nothing to go back to.
Some of the remaining characters are a little underwritten but Merle Hensel’s set is both a brilliantly drab and human-less grey-tiled base, but also a basis for flashing graphics which are an important part of the frenzy, and the scene changes. Increasingly though these are done in completely darkness forcing the audience to confront the blackness of Space along with the characters The final 15 minutes packs less of a punch than perhaps it should given how brilliantly the tension has been heightened and it’s not an ending that is predictable or entirely satisfying. With a West End transfer surely imminent X is a searing insight into the psychological effects of the emptiness of Space and the disintegration of a false reality billions of miles from home.
Runs until7 May 2016 | Image:Manuel Harlan