Review: X at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court

It's very normal for a piece of theatre that is diverse and "out there" to split opinions and that is exactly what X at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court has done. I've seen a range of reviews from one star to five stars for this play and while I sit on the four/five star side of this debate, I can totally see why opinions differ so highly: the piece really doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Sure, the premise is easy to follow, but you're questioning if what you were told at the beginning was even true come the end and I can see why that annoys and confuses people. I do, however, think that this play is extremely clever and that this confusion that you leave the theatre filled with is almost the point of the play itself.

The story of X takes place on a lone research base on Pluto. Inhabited by five British people seeing if living life on Pluto is possible, the research base loses contact with Earth and they are essentially stuck. As time passes on, they begin to forget how long they've been stuck there; strange rumours start to emerge between them as both the characters and the audience begin to question who and what is real anymore. It's a very simple concept behind it but what's so great about it is how it is done. Alistair McDowall sure knows how to craft a mammoth piece of (ironically) intimate and intelligent theatre. He knows how the audience's mind works and he knows how to get his idea and grips for the psyche across to the audience in a beautifully well-crafted way; it was haunting and fascinating all at once.

The stunning set used for X at the Royal Court

The cast is wonderful too and while it does at times feels like the acting falls slightly short, it's a great cast overall. Jessica Raine gives a wonderful performance Gilda which, despite seeming rocky to start with, fits the speed of the play when it's explained more in the second act. I also loved James Harkness' performance as Clark who managed  to be both the class clown and the raw heart of the show throughout - I think it could even be argued that his character was the "lead" if Raine's Gilda wasn't assumed to be so. Rudi Dharmalingham and the rest of the cast should also be noted for providing towards the show's fantastic sense of an ensemble piece, which really worked in its favour.

Merle Hensel's design stole the show for me, though. Entirely set in the exact same space the whole evening, she has managed to transform this small area into a clinical-feeling out-of-this-world space station. It seems incredibly simple to look at, but you can tell how well thought out it really is. Vicky Featherstone's directing is also gold and in a show that has a scene where every single word is "X" in the second act, you need to be hot on it and Featherstone really is. Without this duo's hard work, this play - which, as I said before, is essentially gobblydeegook to read - would be no where near the experience that it is.

Yes, X at the Royal Court is a confusing piece of theatre if you're going in there thinking it's going to be an easy ride. It's one for those who like pieces that bend the rules of drama as we know it and think outside of the box and that is certainly what it's going to be remembered for. This is new and fresh drama for the 21st century and the Royal Court has managed to succeed at it once again.

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