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.