It’s an intriguing premise for a play: the crew of a spaceship stuck on Pluto and all communication with Mother Earth lost. How long have they been there? How long will they be there? Will they be there forever? How long is forever?
The set is a grey box, with a table and chairs, what looks like a kitchen worktop and an exercise bike. There’s a blacked out window in the middle of the back wall and above it a digital clock. A stepladder reaches up the length of one wall. It is clinical and soulless, like the rest area of some municipal building like a hospital. There’s not a console or a screen in sight.
But then this is not science fiction. We hear very little about Pluto except that it’s as far from Earth as you can get and it’s not even a planet; which is why they send the Brits there rather than to Mars, which is ‘full of blonde Americans’. It’s more a play about people, and more specifically what happens to people when time – which anyway is an Earth construct which means nothing on Pluto – goes awry, and the clocks stop. There’s no night and no day and no week or month or even year. ‘I don’t even know how old I am!’ wails Clark, the tech guy.
And so they wait.
Meanwhile Ray, the Captain (Darrell D’Silva), feeds his nostalgia for the old Earth, before the trees died along with the animals and the birds, by looking at ancient photographs and recreating the sounds of long-gone birds with pipes he keeps in a special box. He remembers eating meat when he was five years old. Clark (James Harkness) keeps his spirits up by exercising on the bike and bouncing balls and telling the story of the tree he saw in Mexico, when he was six. Gilda, the geologist (Jessica Raine), chews her hair and eats cereal dry straight from the box. Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz) eats it out of a bowl. Cole, the meteorologist (Rudi Dharmalingam), does maths. There is enough food and water to last them for decades.
It is Cole who first realises the clock is malfunctioning, and from then on things begin to spiral out of control. Ray is the first to lose it, with a failed suicide attempt. He says he’s seen a child looking through the window. When the child materialises right there in the room with him he goes berserk with his knife, smearing the walls and painting ‘X’ on the window with his own blood before he dies.
Act 2 begins with what looks like a rescue. It’s Mattie, dressed in astronaut gear, being sick into her helmet. The room is stripped of its furniture. Cole turns on Gilda as she tries to tell them about the girl – ‘But you saw her too!’ Cole has cancer, he’s forgotten, the scans show a tumour, but he won’t listen. Clark and Gilda resort to communicating in Xes. What is X? Is it time? Time accelerates, lights flash and scroll and sweep across the set. And then it’s finally Gilda, and Mattie, and the child.
Baffled? Of course, that I presume is partly the point of the exercise. The question is whether it’s an intrigued bafflement or just bafflement. Looking for references beyond the obvious Waiting for Godot – which it resembles not in the slightest – I thought at one point we were in Huis Clos country: ‘Hell is other people’. But it’s not that either. I’m not sure what it is really about, and maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe the sum of its parts is enough.
This was the first time I’d seen a play by Alistair McDowall and I read the script on my way home, which helped a lot. There are some lovely moments – Ray and his pipes, Gilda sharing a quiet, sweet moment with Clark. Clark annoying everyone and especially Cole. Human moments. And the ending, which I can’t reveal for obvious reasons. I suspect this is a love-it-or-hate-it piece. It is certainly bold, and original, and the performances are excellent. It is also baffling and slow, and rather long. But I guess being stuck in a spaceship on Pluto with no sign of rescue would also be baffling, and slow, not to say interminable.
Review by Patsy Trench
by Alistair McDowall
30 March – 7th May 2016
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
“It’s a tax write-off. This is where they send the new, the underqualified, the old. And most of all the British. Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there.”
Billions of miles from home, the lone research base on Pluto has lost contact with Earth. Unable to leave or send for help, the skeleton crew sit waiting.
Waiting long enough for time to start eating away at them.
To lose all sense of it.
To start seeing things in the dark outside.
“Can you help me?…
I really feel like I’m…
I’m hanging on by my nails here…”
Alistair McDowall’s new play is directed by Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone.
Age guidance 14+
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (including a 20min interval)
Production contains flashing lights.
A great premise and lots of promise but the second half doesn’t use any of it.
Thanks for an honest review. If I had read this first I might not have gone to see it.
Imagine watching “the sixth sense” without the twist in the tale. Or the slightly surreal and vacuous ending of “2001 Space Oddesey”. This is how I felt after watching X. The ending left me confused and annoyed. One star for effort.