X – London theatre 1

Four crew are stranded far away on Pluto, all communication with Earth lost.  How do they react?  How do they cope?  What will the last one do when they are all alone?

Alistair McDowall’s latest play X follows on from the success of Pomona.  X is a play about time, about memory and about loneliness.  As Earth becomes an increasingly distant memory, memories fracture, history is altered, and the crew build their own stories; mythical stories of the last tree, and when the birds fell from the sky.  We never really know where the play starts and where it ends; time itself changes.

Each crew member finds comfort in isolation.  Ray in photographs of people he doesn’t know; Gilda in the recorded silence from the surface of Pluto; Clark in porn films; Cole in mathematical equations.  As the play progresses, reality and norms are stripped back and a new world emerges.  Arguments about correct pronunciation, latin bird names and ten page reports give way to a more fluid approach.

There are interesting tricks with time.  Does time itself change, or is it the crew’s perceptions that are changing?  It feels a cross between the very real changes in time that happen as you approach a black hole, and the distorted perceptions of time in a dementia patient – my mother, for example, relocates traumatic events from seventy years ago to a more recent place and time.

Staging is very filmic (think the Nether and Chimerica), and this makes the story much more powerful than a simply set drama.  The fractured set is tilted so that we never quite get our bearings on the horizontal, adding to the uncertainty of the text.  There are some gimmicky bits (it would be a spoiler) but aside from that it’s a deeply unsettling, brilliantly directed, acted and staged piece.  In particular, Jessica Raine creates a wonderfully uncertain Gilda, in perfect contrast to arrogant Clark (James Harkness).

Does it matter that the narrative is unclear?  No, I don’t think so.  I feel with Alistair McDowall’s plays that most of all you get a strong emotional reaction; after all that’s what modern art does, why not theatre?

X is at the Royal Court, London, until 7 May.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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