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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review

"I'm the last generation that lived among the living." — Ray
Jessica Raine as Gilda (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Alistair McDowall's bizarre but compelling play Pomona flew from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond to the Shed space at the National Theatre. Now Vicky Featherstone directs at the Royal Court his latest play Xset on the dwarf planet Pluto. Four, or maybe five, members of a research station have lost communication with earth but have enough provisions to outlast their lifetime. Whilst this play, set in the future, obviously is in the category of science fiction, there are aspects of it that are horror as some staff imagine there are figures outside trying to get in.

Captain Ray (Darrell D'Silva) has a collection of whistles that imitate bird song. It seems that birds have long since died out on earth as have all the animals and trees. Ray remembers that day the birds all fell out of the trees, "dropping like stones wrapped in paper". He tells us he remembers eating meat when he was five years old but now all food is grown in a petrie dish. I was left puzzling how people could have survived? But this is maybe the skill in reading science fiction that you can give imaginative credence to the incredible.

Jessica Raine is the anxious second in command, Gilda, who nervously eats dry cereal out of a box, presumably originating in a petrie dish, and chews her hair. When Ray decides he is not going back to earth nor enduring the visions he can see through the window, of a child, a little girl (Amber Fernee/Grace Doherty) with an X shaped scar where her mouth should be as if she has been silenced, Gilda is forced to take over the command of the research station.

Clark (James Harkness) is the technical/computer lead, a Scotsman who is very frank and whose displacement activity is to bounce a ball against the wall repeatedly annoying everyone else. Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) is a meteorologist who gets sick and forgets. We are not sure if the fifth member of the crew Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz) actually exists.

When earth loses touch, all the computer systems break down and the crew can only speculate as to what has happened. Is it a communication fault or is there no-one left on earth to communicate with them? When they notice that the digital clock and their watches are also going haywire they lose the ability to measure out their existence and at the same time their sense of identity starts to fragment.

Towards the end of the play Clark and Gilda lose speech and several pages of the script are covered with the letter x. I was reminded of one of Caryl Churchill's plays where language breaks down into unrecognizable utterances. There was also a Caryl Churchill reference for me from Blue Heart when the children tumble out of the kitchen cupboard, when the child with an x for a mouth comes into the room feet first, her little legs dangling from the cupboard.

The scenes are broken with almost an art installation of electronic projections in the shorter second act. There is obviously some technical wizardry here and Merle Hensel's set has a slewed gaping dimension creating different angles for the interior of the spaceship.

X has more puzzles than solutions and the future vision of an earth without trees or birds or animals is a nightmare.
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Written by Alistair McDowall
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Starring: Jessica Raines, James Harkness, Darryl D'Silva, Rudi Dharmalingam
With: Ria Zmitrowicz, Amber Fernee/Grace Doherty
Designed by Merle Hensel
Lighting: Lee Curran
Composer and sound: Nick Powell
Running time: One hour 55 minutes with an interval
Booking to 7th May 2016
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th April 2016 performance at Jerwood Space Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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