X at the Royal Court review: a terrifying, claustrophobic space horror that comes unravelled

 
Steve Dinneen
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The play takes place on a creepy research base on Pluto

Royal Court | ★★★☆☆

The best science fiction is virtually always a vehicle for social commentary, a metaphor for talking about the here and now. Alien can be read as an advocation of abortion; Dune reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War-era oil industry; Dawn of the Dead is a critique of consumerism. But, crucially, you could be blissfully unaware of these readings and still enjoy them at face value.

Theatre tends to be more explicit about its intentions, with the setting playing second fiddle to the issues being discussed, and as a result you get fewer traditional “genre” plays (clearly this is a gross generalisation and I'm not suggesting this is true of all plays). So during the interval of young playwright Alistair McDowall’s X, I though how refreshing it was to see a play that seemed content to be a tense, claustrophobic space horror.

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It’s set on a distant research base on Pluto, where a handful of crew have been cut off from communication with earth. The action takes place in a recreation room clearly reminiscent of films like Solaris, Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The whole set is slightly tilted, giving a feeling of vague uneasiness. One wall is filled with an ominous black window looking out over Pluto’s interminable night.

The writing is tight, far more-so than McDowall’s previous play, 2014’s near-future dystopia Pomona, which had a run at the National’s Temporary Theatre. While it was reasonably well received, I found it too sprawling, too messy, too packed with competing ideas to really say very much. There was plenty of evocative imagery, but I’m not quite sure what it was evoking. X is far subtler, with tension and cabin fever building slowly (a little too slowly in the over-long first half; it could comfortably lose a character and 10 or 15 minutes). There are also brilliantly staged scenes of old-school horror, with lights cutting out, only to reveal the nightmarish image of an unknown presence in the station, all supplemented by excellent use of sound and projection.

If it had ended 15 minutes sooner, I’d have walked out awe-struck; instead the metaphorical elements that had been hinted at throughout are spelled out and triple underscored in red. It wasn’t simply a “genre” play after all, and it’s poorer for it.

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