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Alistair McDowall follows up his stunning 'Pomona' with this brain-melting sci-fi odyssey
Where to even start with ‘X’.
If I had to ascribe it a genre, I’d go for ‘space horror’, which is definitely one of the more underrespresented theatrical forms. Although not entirely surprising coming from playwright Alistair McDowall, who announced himself in 2014 with ‘Pomona’, a jaw-droppingly audacious, non-linear, HP Lovecraft-referencing thriller set underneath the streets of Manchester.
In ‘X’ it is the future, sometime, and all the birds are dead and all the trees are dead. Or so we’re told, anyway: the play is set on a British-run research base on Pluto, the erstwhile planet at the very edge of the solar system. And it’s been three weeks since anybody heard from Earth: messages have been sent, and apparently received, but the home planet has stopped responding. A scheduled spaceship home has not materialised. The crew are coping relatively well: high-strung Gilda (Jessica Raine) is clearly freaking out, but keeping herself going through blind optimism and focus on the day-to-day. Laidback Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz) and nerdy, unimaginative Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) are just getting on with their jobs. Clark (James Harkness) is concentrating on being a dick. And Ray (Darrell D’Silva), the oldest, crankiest member of the crew is drifting back into memories of the time before the birds died… oh, and he thinks he’s seen somebody else about, a little girl with an X of scar tissue for a mouth.
Things start to get even stranger when Cole notices that something is up with the base’s clocks. The linearity of time starts to be called into question. In certain scenes one of the crew appears to be dead, in others, not. Nervous, bored bickering slowly curdles into dread and then horror as we realise something is most certainly up. And then ‘X’ gets properly weird.
The show is so unabashedly other that I suspect it’ll be heavily misunderstood by folk suspicious of something that’s as influenced by ‘2001’ and ‘Event Horizon’ as any of the theatre canon. Vicky Featherstone’s production – in which all the action takes place in a single, disorientatingly angled rooom, which changes drastically during blackouts that are ably controlled by stage manager Sunita Hinduja – has a deadpan tone that won’t work for all, but I found it mesmerising. And the cast are great, neurotic Brits bickering Britishly at the outer limit of known space.
As for what’s going on – I mean, fuck knows really, but clearly ’X’ is a play about disintegration and endings; the end of life, the end of memory, the end of technology, the end of civilisation, the end of maths. It also looks really cool. Space: the final frontier and a neato metaphor for the human mind. More playwrights should explore it.