Alistair McDowall
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Jessica Raine Credit: Alastair Muir
Darrell D’Silva and Jessica Raine Credit: Alastair Muir
James Harkness and Rudy Dharmalingam Credit: Alastair Muir

In selecting the mysteriously named X for the Royal Court’s main stage, Vicky Featherstone is following a trend that has become modish in cinemas of late.

Alistair McDowall’s new play is set on a symbolically sloping spaceship somewhere not too far from Pluto some time in the sci-fi future.

As fans of this movie genre will quickly understand, any small, lonely group left in outer space will spend their time veering between navel gazing and bickering and the same apparently applies on stage.

The inhabitants on this successor to the Starship Enterprise have suffered three weeks of radio silence from home base on earth and are getting shaky. The various possibilities that they debate include a communication failure, a confidence failure and the possibility that humanity in the post-apocalyptic world that they left behind has given up the ghost.

Before too long, so has Darrell D’Silva’s Captain Ray, killed by a combination of chilling hallucinations, bad vibes and a knife applied to his own throat.

This is enough to freak out his number two, the already unhappy central figure of Gilda, played with lashings of nervous anxiety by Jessica Raine.

She is constantly on the verge of tears, provoked it has to be admitted by her fellows, particularly James Harkness as tedious Clark and Rudy Dharmalingam playing extreme mathematician Cole.

Vague fears become more concrete after time ceases to operate linearly, or to be more exact, the group loses its clock and therefore its ability to judge night from day and the effluxion of that valuable commodity.

Up to this point, audience members were likely to be intrigued if somewhat bemused. Their predicament is then hardly helped by the appearances of Ria Zmitrowicz seemingly playing two different versions of the character Mattie, who is also seen as a child.

Alistair McDowall then chooses to make his play even more ethereal, with much repetition and increasing amounts of confusion, probably delighting lovers of hard-core, low action sci-fi but not necessarily the general viewer.

Gradually, one begins to wonder whether the events taking place are actually heavily influenced by someone’s dream, nightmare or conceivably intoxicated and possibly insane mental ramblings.

Coincidentally, the key to understanding this sometimes grim 2¼-hour drama is exactly the same as that required to unlock Right Now, which had opened at the Bush only a week before.

Once again, it would be unfair to reveal the twist in the tail but in each case it goes a good way to explaining and justifying all that has gone before.

Looked at in retrospect, X makes some worthwhile observations about a challenging subject. Therefore ideally you would need to see it twice to make the most of the experience.

However, plays are inevitably watched from start to finish and almost always only once. Therefore, despite a good central performance from Jessica Raine under the direction of Miss Featherstone, this one takes an awfully long time to grab the attention.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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