We have a split jury on this preview of X at the Royal Court. I found lots to like about it, whereas Janie pretty much universally hated it.
We booked it very much on the back of the amazing Alisair McDowell play, Pomona, which we saw at the Orange Tree some 18 months ago and which was undoubtedly one of the best things we have seen in the past few years.
Pomona was set in a dystopian Manchester, either in the near future or right now. X is set on a space station on the planet Pluto (“nay, not even a proper planet, a dwarf planet”, I hear you cry) in a dystopian future, perhaps a long time in the future, perhaps sooner than we think.
Vicky Featherstone really is becoming the queen of dystopia; for pity’s sake cheer up, Vicky, it might never happen. But these days you don’t very often go to the Royal Court in search of being cheered up; in some ways you never did. The Royal Court audience loves a good kitchen sink drama and indeed we sort-of got one of those; especially the first act, which is set in the space station’s living/eating area.
I liked the oldest character, the mission captain; the only character who really remembered meat, trees and birds therein. He also clung to some small physical artefacts as symbols of “real life”; the inference was that the younger characters lived more or less entirely virtual existences without physical artefacts at all.
Perhaps this point about excessive reliance on 1s and 0s rather than real existence was a clue to the title and symbolism X, which remained obscure, at least to me and Daisy, throughout the play despite the importance and several uses of X as both a symbol and word.
In truth, Daisy wasn’t really in the mood for theatre even before we set off for the Royal Court, but I know that “her sort of play” would have lifted her mood, while this really was not her sort of play.
X is an extremely cold play in every sense. It’s set on Pluto for a start, where the average temperature is −229 °C. Further to suppress Janie’s mood, the Royal Court was almost as cold as Pluto itself for some reason that evening and the bar staff put ice in our drinks despite our specific request for our drinks to be ice free. Perhaps the latter was a small nod towards Ed Hall’s idea at the Hampstead to have themed bars for several productions?
X isn’t really my sort of play either, but there was plenty in it to keep me interested, in suspense during the show and thinking a lot afterwards. Indeed it made both of us think a lot afterwards.
While this cold play simply made Daisy feel low, it left me with confused emotions. The few moments of tenderness and kindness in the play, were beautifully handled and were a glorious reminder of people’s inherent benevolence, even in situations which are sure to test the very limits of humanity.
Janie and I both agreed that Jessica Raine as Gilda, in particular, was superb. I actually thought the whole piece was very well acted.
As we left the theatre, just before we stepped out into the cold, wet evening, I spotted the playwright Simon Stephens deep in conversation with a younger fellow, who Janie believes she recognised as Alistair McDowell himself. Quite likely, as the production is still in preview.
No, X did not quite connect in the way Pomona did, but this is only Alistair McDowell’s second major go and I still think we have a rare and original talent on our hands in him. Perhaps his next go will be just a little more down to earth, which might enable me to persuade Daisy to give him another chance.