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X review at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London – ‘hauntingly human’

Ria Zmitrowicz and Jessica Raine in X. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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People still argue over the meaning of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And audiences are likely to do the same with Alistair McDowall’s stunning new play, X, which shoulders the legacy of Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece with ease, leaving its own hallucinatory mark.

Where McDowall’s last play, Pomona, found Lovecraftian horror in grimy Manchester backstreets, X takes us into the solar system and a research base on Pluto that has lost contact with a resource-depleted Earth. Time is glitching, the crew is losing its grip and there might be something impossible in the darkness.

From Solaris to Event Horizon, a wealth of cinematic references lurk in the writing, and the battered futurism of Merle Hensel’s tilted set. It’s a lonely place, for lonely people hanging on the edge of memory. McDowall masterfully plants ideas that grow until they explode into extraordinary shapes. Filthy humour breaks down into a cracked algorithm of letters and loss.

Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone snaps us in and out of darkness with the same disorientating sense of dread as the Japanese horror films that are also part of the play’s DNA. There’s a hanging emptiness to the well-used space, with its hatches and ladders and its dare-to-look window.

Leading an exceptional cast, Jessica Raine exposes every fraying nerve of acting team leader Gilda. She’s desolately moving by the dreamlike final scenes, as McDowall and Featherstone wrest hard-edged genre tropes into something hauntingly human. X is a play that will gnaw away at you. It’s sci-fi – and theatre – at its best.

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Alistair McDowall’s new play confirms him as one of the most imaginative and talented new voices in British theatre today