Legend has it that an X marks a spot of valuable treasure, whereas in this new offering from the Royal Court, X becomes an emblem of multiple unknown dangers that threaten detrimental impact and decline.

Following on from last year’s hugely successful Pomona, which saw a lively transfer to the Temporary Theatre at The National, Alistair Mcdowall’s X exists in a similarly dark environment. This time we are deposited in space. However, rest assured that humanity is at the core of this work. The play explores individual relationships and measures the worth of individual lives against the span of humanity, discussing what it means to be living.

In X, we are taken to a research base on Pluto that has lost all contact with Earth. There are four individuals on board the ship, including Gilda who is played by Jessica Raine. Raine instils in Gilda an endearing, anxious energy. Time is measured according to Earth Time, but, as one of the crew notice, time is jumping on the base’s clock. They are no longer able to measure time, causing them to lose their grip on both time and reality.

Merle Hensel’s set initially appears barren, but, like McDowell’s text, has hidden components that reveal new layers to the space. There is an unnerving window at the furthest wall, staring out into the abyss. The audience anticipate something to come to the window at any point. Gilda is told a story about a girl roaming in the darkness, and for the remainder of the play there is a sense of dread over what may come knocking.

Artistic Director of the Royal Court, Vicki Featherstone, has captained this ship. Her direction pays due weight to McDowell’s, script which at times is fascinatingly barren, but Featherstone is also apt at thrusting the script into full force by scene transitions that catapult us into utter darkness. This gives a sense that we are being shown an equal amount of things as are being hidden from us, whether in reality or some of the character’s grasp on reality. Gilda’s unravelling is measured through minuet scenes intersected with blackness. It has cinematic quality to it that pay homage to a great history of space films.

McDowell’s script has power. Avoiding too much jargon to do with their environment or the demise of Earth, McDowell is invested in telling a story of isolation and loss. The characters in X loose their sense of place, time, people and slowly they begin to loose their minds. Each person’s trauma manifests in unique ways, Clark turns his back on all history and partakes in mindless tasks like throwing a ball up and down in the same spot for minutes on end, Cole is unable to remember the tumour taking root within his spine, Ray is enchanted by the sounds of birds that he is able to replicate with his kit of instruments to echo birdsong back home, and Gilda noshes down on dry cereal, taking deep anxious breaths whilst proactively trying to keep up the work momentum of the base. Each person has a crutch to help them negotiate their desperate state.

X is an exploratory work that can exist with multiple complexities for an audience. The object is not to solve the riddle of the ship but to observe the decline in optimism and sanity, and witness how humanity can start to dissolve if we are isolated and removed from our history. Societal norms like language and decorum are exposed as fabricated functionalities rather than utter necessities as articulated through the manic articulation of the letter X.

X marks the unknown.


X is playing at the Royal Court until Saturday 7 May. For tickets and further information see the

Royal Court Theatre website.