Pros: The use of lighting, sound, video and clever staging to create atmosphere and drama.
Cons: The unresolved questions about reality versus imagination. Poor visibility from the back of the stalls.
Alistair McDowall’s new play, X, is set in an open-plan living room with a neat table and chairs, a breakfast bar and a kitchenette. The residents come and go; Gilda grazes on cereal straight from the packet, Clark works out on the exercise bike and teases Cole, Ray tinkers with his bird whistles. But this is not a home, it’s a space station on Pluto and the crew, who have lost contact with Earth, are coming to realise that they’ve been abandoned. Their collective response is one of passivity, and they quickly conclude that any effort to help themselves would be futile. This is a crew without camaraderie; faced with the prospect of life and death in the darkness of space, they are strangely unable either to give or receive comfort.
Time passes, systems fail, even the table and the Guess Who set seem to pack up. One of the crew is ‘in the freezer’, one is sick and the other two are struggling to remain lucid. But finally, in the inhospitable shell of the space station, some fellow feeling develops; characters start to show empathy and the ability to care for each other. Their shared attempt to find meaning, to recover and reorder memories, culminates in an increasingly frantic sequence of black and white video projections, with a crescendo of X’s. Inevitable and yet implausible, desperate rather than passionate, the coupling brings to mind a similar event in EM Forster’s Howards End, whose motif of human beings fumbling towards intimacy finds an echo here.
The walls of Merle Hensel’s set are grey sheet metal, an enormous ladder runs floor to ceiling, and a large porthole reveals the utter darkness outside. But if it looks like something out of The Posiedon Adventure, the message of X is a world away from the optimism of the Hollywood disaster movie. Instead of activism, McDowall shows us resignation. Instead of collective effort and the indomitable will to survive, he shows us individualism and hopelessness. When loving, nurturing relationships do spring up they bring much-needed comfort but are doomed to end in loss and loneliness. As a metaphor for the human condition, X is pretty bleak.
As a theatrical experience it is fantastically creepy. Long moments of complete darkness leave the audience, like the astronauts, searching for movement or light, wondering what’s out there. A simple digital clock glitches subtly but ominously, and there are some really striking, unnerving images. I’m not at all sure that the sci-fi-horror aspect of the plot makes any sense. Perhaps sci-fi-horror things aren’t meant to, or perhaps it was just me. But the atmosphere is superb. The creative team took me to Pluto, played with my senses, made me feel claustrophobic and strung-out. More than the play’s allusions to a blasted Earth, more than its heartbreaking conclusion and reflections on love, life, loss and memory, it’s that atmosphere that I’ll remember most about this production.
Author: Alistair McDowall
Director: Vicky Featherstone
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking Link: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/xtheplay?tab=1
Booking Until: 7 May 2016