Review: Sci-Fi Play Set On Pluto Feels A Bit Distant

X, Royal Court ★★★☆☆

Lettie Mckie
By Lettie Mckie Last edited 22 months ago
Review: Sci-Fi Play Set On Pluto Feels A Bit Distant X, Royal Court 3
Darrell D'Silva & Jessica Raine in X by Alistair McDowell at the Royal Court © Manuel Harlan

By far the most impressive element of X is Merle Hensel's filmic set.

A claustrophobic metal box veers off centre, the floor sloping as if suspended in space. A huge window sits at the back of the stage, an eerie black nothingness outside. Hensel has perfectly recreated the futuristic feel of on-screen greats such as Star Trek and, dare we say it, Red Dwarf.

Set on a research base on Pluto in a future where the human race has travelled to the furthest corners of the universe — this is the hotly anticipated new sci-fi play from visionary playwright Alistair McDowell.

The story is good too — particularly in the more gripping first act. At first life on Pluto seems interminably dull as Ray (Darrell D'Silva) Gilda (Jessica Raine), Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz), Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Clark (James Harkness) mope around in tracksuit bottoms eating cereal and worrying about whether they will ever see Earth again.

Soon things get sinister. A bloody 'X' appears on the window, the base has completely lost contact with Earth and Ray is convinced he has seen a strange figure outside the spaceship.

It becomes clear that we are not watching events in chronological order, that the red digital clock centre stage is behaving very oddly. Are the inhabitants of the spaceship alone?

The story is well told using dramatic lighting and sound effects and there are spine-tingling moments of almost unbearable mounting tension.

Richly layered with wide ranging commentary on issues from human consumption destroying the environment to the socio-economic divide, X explores the continued vulnerability of the human condition fettered by arrogance and greed. It might not be cheery stuff but it's beautifully done with the whole spectrum of emotions and relationships explored.

The actors affect an air of disaffected malaise for their weary characters but they each help us to understand a different perspective on their unusual situation.

D'Silva's enigmatic but defeated Ray is resigned to his fate, Raine's  shrilly-anxious Gilda well matched by Harkness's irritatingly cheerful, down to earth Scot Clark. The geeky Cole, meanwhile, manically grapples with complex mathematical solutions and Mattie remains a disarmingly calm mystery.  

One thing's for sure — X throws up far more questions than it answers.

Gilda is a terrible leader but is she a good mother? Cole is socially awkward and Clark abrasive but together can they work out an algorithm to fix the clock? Mattie is unhelpful and bitchy but could she just be the group's only chance of survival?

Despite X's many strengths the second act is disappointing. Much of the tension dissipates as all sense of time and place becomes disjointed beyond our ability to keep track.

Without time the characters' personalities, memories and experiences begin to merge and then disappear. It's hard to care about the fate of characters who seem so distant and confused, even to themselves.

The set continues to triumph however, as the action becomes increasingly abstract and the figures get lost in a world made up intermittently of flashing lights and penetrating darkness.

X is on at the Royal Court , Sloane Square SW1W 8AS until 7 May. Tickets £12-£15. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 08 April 2016