“You’re asking me all these questions and they’re all,
And it’s not –
It doesn’t mean anything”
True story – every time someone raves about Pomona, a new fan of Miss Saigon is born. The determination to force a new world order from the unlikely starting spot of the Orange Tree Theatre has meant that Alistair McDowall now has that unfortunate albatross of hype firmly attached to his neck and thus his new play X, opening at the Royal Court, comes burdened – a little unfairly – with the weight of expectation.
And I have to say for me, it’s hard to tell whether they’ll be met or not. Perhaps predictably, X is a curious, slippery beast that wilfully toys with notions of audience satisfaction, in that it really doesn’t care whether you ‘get’ it or not. Set on Pluto, the crew of a small research base have lost contact with Earth and are left waiting. For what exactly, they don’t know. And after two and a half hours or so of Vicky Featherstone’s production, neither do we.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (no matter what certain critics might tell you). After the gruelling but exhilarating emotional challenge of the second act, when McDowall finally drills down to the essence of the audacity and strangeness that characterises the best of his writing, X is a powerful play that has a lot to say in a very particular order, or is that no particular order. For we’re constantly being wrong-footed and not just by the queasy angle of Merle Hensel’s design.
Time is broken, identity is fluid, words and phrases echo and flow from one character to another as something of a puzzle that feels solvable emerges in the first act. But McDowall is playing with us, there is no (easy) solution, X doesn’t mark the spot and it’s not quite satisfying. Return after the interval and it’s like moving from medium to killer level Sudokus, the gradual stripping away of what has so far counted for normality moves past frustrating to become incredibly gripping.
Jessica Raine is a canny choice of everyman to position at the heart of the play and I really enjoyed her work as Gilda, Rudi Dharmalingam and James Harkness impressing too as her colleagues floating in a most peculiar way. And even if it may ultimately prove too inscrutable for some, Lee Curran’s lighting, Nick Powell’s brooding sound and Tal Rosner’s immersive video work all contribute to an impressively tense atmosphere in this space oddity.