X review – a jittery dystopia

Royal Court, London
Alistair McDowall’s new play is an ingenious, taxing tale of future humanity adrift in despair

X is another of Alistair McDowall’s dystopian dramas. In 2014 his Pomona changed the profile of the Orange Tree theatre, touching it with a new wildness. Set in a lost place and frightened minds, the terrific short play prowled over the stage. It had the ferocity of people on the run. X is populated by characters who have been abandoned and are in despair. It jitters.

X is not meant to do anything as obvious as hang together. Its time scheme has been smashed. Cause and effect become jumbled. Its characters are drifting, unanchored. They are on a research base on Pluto, which has lost contact with Earth. Pluto is full of underqualified Brits; Mars has blond Americans. Oh, and much of life on Earth has been destroyed. No trees, not much light. One day a long time ago all the birds fell out of the branches. They lay on the ground “like stones in paper”.

McDowall’s force of expression is matched by his visual imagination. And by Vicky Featherstone’s direction, which allows the losing-the-plot plot to declare itself in image as much as word. Merle Hensel’s sloping, grey, hatches-down design cracks open to show a small girl stealing from a cupboard, and comes out of darkness to reveal a feathery corpse the size of a whale. Video is by the rising Tal Rosner, who illuminated Everyman at the National. His jagged white light splinters the stage. Jessica Raine is lambent as the nervy, hair-chewing reluctant leader of the group. Her ease will surprise only those who think of her as having wandered on to the stage from the screen and Call the Midwife. She has projected naturally from the moment she first appeared there eight years ago, as a teenager in Harper Regan.

So. Talent as well as ingenuity. But ingenuity wins. X cudgels with its obliqueness. It suggests that nothing as coherent as a solution is ever possible but it makes audiences sit a significance exam. Catch the meaning and you’ll get an alpha. My answer may get a beta. It is that X, for all its intricacy, says something simple: disconnect your heart and you are likely to lose your mind.

At the Royal Court, London, until 7 May


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in theatre: A Number; The Glow – review
Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu illuminate Caryl Churchill’s great cloning play, while a fine cast lift Alistair McDowall’s wordy new dystopia

Susannah Clapp

06, Feb, 2022 @10:30 AM

Article image
Cyprus Avenue review – bigotry laid absurdly bare
Stephen Rea is superb as an Ulster loyalist suspicious of his ‘Fenian’ baby granddaughter

Susannah Clapp

17, Apr, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Jews. In Their Own Words. review – an illuminating, unsettling study of prejudice
Based on interviews by Jonathan Freedland with 12 British Jews, this verbatim play directed by Vicky Featherstone disturbs and frustrates

Kate Kellaway

02, Oct, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The Glow review – myth and history collide in a sci-fi spine-tingler
Alistair McDowall’s enthralling meditation on time and mortality features a sword-fighting knight and a Victorian medium

Kate Wyver

28, Jan, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
All of It review – everywoman takes us from cradle to grave
Alistair McDowall’s monologue – performed by a mesmerising Kate O’Flynn – channels female experience with warmth and humour

Arifa Akbar

11, Feb, 2020 @2:03 PM

Article image
Open Court: did it change the face of new writing?

Not every piece had polish – but there was a Royal Court debut every day. Matt Trueman looks back on a kaleidoscopic, riotous festival of new work

Matt Trueman

01, Aug, 2013 @7:35 AM

Article image
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour review – a high-energy kick
There are great performances from these convent girls let loose in Edinburgh in Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Alan Warner novel

Clare Brennan

23, Aug, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: The Cane; The Tell-Tale Heart; Uncle Vanya – review
Corporal punishment still hurts in Mark Ravenhill’s haunting new play, Poe is channelled for festive creepiness, and fine performances spruce up Chekhov

Susannah Clapp

16, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Sewing Group review – stitches in time
EV Crowe explores the disorienting effects of technology in her cryptic new play

Susannah Clapp

20, Nov, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Othello; Baghdaddy – review
Opposite Giles Terera’s dynamic yet vulnerable Othello, Rosy McEwen’s forthright Desdemona is a revelation

Kate Kellaway

04, Dec, 2022 @10:30 AM