X IS A rare thing – a genuinely scary play. Not in a slow-drip psychological torture kind of way, but in a haunted house, ghost train, pitch black, scary music, I have just grabbed-the-hand-of-the-stranger beside me kind of way. For the characters in X, Cole, Ray, Mattie, Clark and Gilda are really trapped. Stuck out on planet Pluto, in the not so far away future, their space craft lost all communications with planet earth some time ago.
How are they going to get home? How are the going to stay sane? And what are they doing out there in the first place?
There aren’t a lot of answers in X.
Gilda, (played by Jessica Raine, most well known for her role in BBC’s Call the Midwife,) starts out a bundle of nerves and doesn’t really veer from a screwy, perpetually harried reluctant captain, once the previous captain Ray, (Darrel D’Silva) has been ominously wheeled into the freezer after committing suicide.
Writer Alistair McDowell, having dispensed with a conventional narrative arc and the idea of time as linear, (the large digital clock on the back wall constantly resets itself,) has to find something for his characters to do. They cannot be stuck in the sterile air-lock of a space ship forever. Or can they? Two choices emerge, delve into back story or throw in a curveball.
With few details about who these people may have been, McDowell plumps for the latter. Enter classic horror trope, a small laughing child. It’s difficult to know whether the gothic horror/sci-fi/thriller elements are the answer to the problem or the problem itself. Are we supposed to care about these characters? Or just gasp in horror as we witness their psychological flailing, our noses pressed up to the glass, as sound designer Nick Powell’s eerie soundscape seeps into the darkness.
The plays real power is its unrelenting suspense and its ability to bewilder. Merle Hansel’s set, a vast cube of a space station, pitched slightly to one side is discombobulating, airless and sterile, and the perfect backdrop for the confusion and chill that ensues. A large rectangular window at the back is the eye of the play, and you cannot help repeatedly glance at it, wondering who or what may emerge from the unrelenting black. Tal Rosner‘s video projection melds into a disorientating, visual space storm. It is immersive, overwhelming and clever. A little like being in Tron for a while.
However despite strong performances from the cast and some laughs along the way, the central problem remains. Not X but Y. Why did the playwright leave them out here and why should we care? In spite of the success of the spookiness, X doesn’t yield any universal insights into what it may mean to be a human in the future and it doesn’t set out to move. X may well = 1 riddle 2 far.
by Gabriella Crewe-Read
X at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until May 7, 2016.
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS
Tel: 020 7656 5000