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.
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I'm a fan of sci-fi so have no doubt the lure of a sci-fi play is what led me to the theatre but it goes way beyond the genre trappings of sci-fi so if you're not into science fiction don't dismiss it off the bat. I left the theatre thinking about time, identity, perception and memory. Some fundamental assumptions about what an audience is viewing when watching a play were turned on their head and completely blew me out the water. I found that almost as thrilling as figuring out what was going on in the play especially during the first half when the crew realise time is glitching and earth still isn't responding after weeks (or is it months?) of trying to get in contact.
Fundamentally though, the play would work in any isolated context. it works set in space because Pluto is as far as we can get from home and still be in the solar system thus being the very definition of isolation but beneath that it was touching and very human. The characters felt familiar and had depth.
the second half spirals manically and lost a few people for sure but overall I found it a rewarding and thought provoking piece of theatre. The cast were strong too with excellent acting and the staging helped complete something which is as exciting as it is disorientating. The royal court is always pushing writers and directors and its great to see that carrying on here.
I really liked this show, the acting for me was spot on, there was no weak link and frankly with a show that has a small cast you do not want a weak link. The first had unveiled really well and left you question what will happen next...Going into the second half a bout of confusion is installed...ummmm what!!??
I like the story, the simplicity of the production and the cast were spot on. However, what I was not so keen on was that not enough information was shared as to where these guys came from, what they had left behind and what they truly feared.
I left the show thinking...what did I just watch, which in a strange kind of way I mostly liked.
Not quite the experience I wanted it to be based on the first half. The setup is strong, varied characters, solid world-building and an atmosphere of isolation and mystery (even mild horror). The second half lets it down though - while it succeeds in disorientating and confusing the audience, it doesn't feel like it complements the first half with satisfying connections to what was established early in the story. It's too loose and ambiguous for its own good, and compares unfavorably with another of this year's plays that similarly uses the perspective of the main character to bewilder and confuse the audience - The Father. I'd give it a lower rating if it weren't so good at making me want to like it.
As I understood it, X is about time (X stands for time in Cole's equation). Stranded in a research base on Pluto, already disconnected from the rythms of nature such as day and night, they totally lose their sense of time when the clock malfunctions. The play seems to explore the importance of time to our concept of self (What is self but the collection of memories, awareness of the present and projections of the future?). When the characters' perception of time evaporates, their minds seem to disintegrate along with it. They struggle to complete sentences (Thoughts and language follow a linear path so break down too) and their memories become confused as sense of separateness fades (at some points the characters recall memories of events that happened in their absence e.g. the calculator incident). Not sure where the girl fits in. Does she represent time itself in someway???
This film is ambitious in its scope and delivers on a conceptual level. Xcellent...sorry!
One of the worst things I've ever seen in the theatre. Filled with clichés. It felt like something a show-off teenager would write. Someone needs to go through the script and cross out about 50% if it.
'X' left me feeling slightly confused and unsure as to what I had just seen. There were some scary moments which made me feel quite tense but other than that I was just confused. My boyfriend, who is a huge sci-fi fan loved it so I guess it's just a difference of opinion.
'X' was a well executed production with some great dialogue and the actors nailed their parts without a skewed line between them. I just felt very lost for large portions of the show and just as I began to find a path of understanding, I would be dragged back into a jungle of comprehension or lack of, rather. Of course, this is the intention of the show and I appreciate they executed this with venom and steel. I guess after so much confusion, I would of liked some clarity to walk away with. Not the case here. There were a few scary moments backed up by darkness and lighting effects which created a tense environment .I would probably recommend people to go and watch it if they fancy something different but not a must see, for me.
The best thing I've seen so far this year, intelligent beautifully written and compellingly performed. One tip, the second half makes sense of the first and you have to be observant.
A dull mess of a play. Weak chracterisations, little tension and the plot a hotch-potch of sci-fi clichés. Despite the attempts at playing with time I left during the interval. Life is too short for more than an hour of this.
This is a not great evening at the Royal Court. A rather disappointing play that tries to mix Alien with existential angst. The cast are lost in regional accents and a slow moving plot. Sartre's Huis Clos it is not. And I am surprised the Royal Court allowed such an amateurish performance to reach its main stage.
Worst thing I have ever seen in the theatre. Terrible script with awful acting. The only good thing about this was that it had an interval and gave us the opportunity to leave early.