“X” at the Royal Court – review

 

Yesterday I went along to the Royal Court Theatre here in London to see “X”, a new play by playwright Alistair McDowall.

I blush to admit that, in 18 years of living in the capital, this was my first ever trip to the Royal Court, which has been an important centre for new writing for sixty years.

The theatre’s really easy to get to as it sits right next to Sloane Square tube station, at the top of the King’s Road, and as well as its main auditorium, the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, has a smaller studio space (the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs). There is also a bookshop and a bar and cafe, cosily tucked away beneath street level (I always like places like this, their secrets hidden under the paving slabs – it’s one of the reasons i love the Curzon Soho).

As I receive regular emails from the Royal Court on upcoming productions, I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for “X” (see above), and read some of the accompanying interviews – a play inspired by dystopian Seventies sci-fi? Count me in!

In fact “X” is not quite all it seems.

The set-up is this: five astronauts are on a research base on Pluto, and by the time the story opens they are already strung out and paranoid, and not surprisingly – the ship supposed to take them home after their tour of duty is months late, and Earth isn’t responding to their messages. From the crew’s conversations, we gather that Earth itself is a wasteland, one where the flora and fauna have mysteriously perished, and Mankind is making a new home for itself on the other planets of the solar system (“Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there”).

All of this made me think of classic films like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green”, with their themes of overpopulation and ecological catastrophe – and when “X”‘s characters start seeing a young girl roaming about the station – a young girl who couldn’t possibly be there – and realise that the base’s clock is faulty (“Everything’s linked to Earth through the main clock. And the main clock’s wrong”), I was reminded also of Duncan Jones’s “Moon”, and settled in for a nice couple of hours of psychological horror.

But though “X” delivers its fair share of scary moments – and full credit to the design team of Merle Hensel, Lee Curran, Nick Powell and Tal Rosner, whose aural and visual effects were superb – it gradually becomes apparent that the way McDowall is playing with time and memory – and identity – is about more than just shocks. He begins, slowly and brilliantly, to turn the story inside out, leaving us at first bewildered, but then moved, by what we are seeing (or think we’re seeing), and in its second Act “X” unspools into a tale above all about grief and loss (if you’re familiar with Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” – which has been adapted several times for the screen – you will recognise a certain similarity in tone, though “X” is also very much its own creature).

The actors have to work really hard to sustain the tension, including one bravura sequence where Jessica Raine (as Gilda, the base’s second-in-command) and James Harkness (as Clark, the resident techie) spout apparent nonsense at one another for several minutes. It’s not easy to make someone like Gilda – who is constantly on the verge of bursting into tears, and eats cereal out of the box and chews her hair like a little girl – a sympathetic character, but Raine manages it, and holds our attention throughout (even if you do occasionally want to give her a good shake). The rest of the cast are likewise excellent, and if I occasionally strained to hear the odd bit of dialogue, this didn’t affect my enjoyment (and besides, I bought a copy of the playscript so I can check it again). Director Vicky Featherstone and her team provided a powerful and clever afternoon’s theatre, and ensured that I left my first visit to the Royal Court wanting to come back, and soon.

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