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 The Theatreguide.London Review

X
Royal Court Theatre  Spring 2016

A science fiction setting provides the background for a psychological study in Alistair McDowall's drama, whose intriguing premise too quickly and completely drifts into opaque mysticism and gratuitous mystification. 

The 'What is actually going on here?' element may hold those who enjoy puzzle solving for a while, but ultimately the playwright and the play are speaking entirely in a private symbolic language from which the audience is excluded. 

In a dystopic future the staff of a research station on Pluto find themselves cut off from Earth with no communications and the clocks malfunctioning so they cannot even be sure just how long they have been isolated. 

Believably enough, they begin to go crazy.

(Now, let me pause to say that I am certain I have encountered this plot premise in more than one low-budget sci-fi movie, perhaps set in a drifting spaceship or space station. And, apart from the (probable) absence of a murderer, it has echoes of Agatha Christie isolated-country-house mysteries.) 

What happens here is that people start seeing things that aren't there (or denying seeing things that are), losing track of time and the order of past events, and becoming confused about whose memories and hallucinations are whose. 

Over what could be days or decades they start dying off, though not in any sinister way, until one is left, totally unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. 

That much is pretty clear, but it is also pretty clear that the playwright is not really interested in the process of isolation driving people mad in itself. It is just the framework for something else – and what that is, is not at all clear. 

The particular form of fantasy and madness the last surviving character drifts into is probably meant to be significant, but it has so little to do with anything that came before that the final scenes might seem to come out of some other play. 

Meanwhile, getting to that ending has involved lying to the audience, as characters introduced to us as real are later identified as illusions, and drifting through New Age-ish mysticism, Stanley Kubrick-ish (as in the end of 2001) mystification, self-referential jokes ('All this time I thought I was the main character' says one who never seemed that way to us) and pure gibberish – an entire scene consists of two characters shouting 'X! X! X!' (There are six solid pages of nothing but that letter – whose significance, by the way, is never explained – in the published text) at each other. 

Director Vicky Featherstone and a hard-working cast led by Jessica Raine deserve real credit for holding our interest as long as they do, but they are ultimately defeated by a playwright who doesn't seem particularly interested in talking to us.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - X  - Royal Court Theatre 2016  
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