The venue needs no introduction – The Royal Court is one of London’s best known theatres, renowned for innovative new writing. So it’s no surprise they’re putting on ‘X’, the latest work of Yorkshire playwright Alistair McDowall, billed as the next big thing in British theatre.
Some time in the future, in a galaxy far far away…I know what you’re thinking, you’ve seen it before. In some ways you’d be right – elements of this could be 2001: Space Odyssey For Stage. Whilst the dying-earth dystopian future backdrop isn’t new, the narrative really focuses in on a personal scale. Specifically a tiny speck on the periphery of the known universe. A research centre off Pluto, which apparently isn’t a very nice place. The solar system equivalent to the edge of a treasure map, imagine the sea pouring over the end of the world, reading ‘Here There Be Monsters’.
The show itself is fantastically atmospheric and the sense of unease is immediate. Something’s not quite right. Merle Hensel’s bleak, utilitarian set of the spacecraft interior consists of riveted panels in a clinical off-white… but it’s all skewed at an angle. The digital clock on the wall keeps jumping back. The glitching projections and sound effects accompanying scene changes all unnerve. Something is wrong. System error. All the action takes place within this setup, no changes. This adds to the sense of claustrophobia. The audience are stuck in this space, just like the crew. We’re in this together (right? Guys?). It’s all hard lines and synthetic materials, nothing organic here. The layout is centred around a sightless black eye – the window to the void outside. The production gets a bonus thumbs up for depicting space without ever showing a cheesy starscape.
As if being billions of miles away from earth isn’t isolating enough, the play cuts more ties to reality as the story progresses. As the clocks go wrong we lose sense of time, even the characters’ identities begin to muddle together, repeating lines and reversing situations. There is no rock, no safe space. It’s actually quite nauseating.
Vicky Featherstone’s work at the Royal Court is generally great and her direction of X is no exception. The slick choreography, fantastic lighting and ominous sound make the whole thing feel almost cinematic. It’s a sumptuous visual feast, a progressively mad experience that’ll leave your molten brain dribbling out of your ears.
Criticisms? Not many. Whilst the characters are all fantastically played (James Harkness is particularly good as Clark), in terms of writing some don’t show much depth beyond a surface level of hysteria. There’s also no real explanation as to why the research station is there or much in the way of linear storytelling, if that’s what you’re after. Did I understand what was going on? Not really. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. If you’re seeking a serious chin-scratching look at life-after-earth or how we’re destroying the planet, stick to the news. But if you want a thrilling, imaginative and funny escape, get your tickets while you still can. It is, wait for it, OUT OF THIS WORLD.