X, Royal Court


Originally written for Exeunt.

Everything in X is slightly off-kilter. Literally. Merle Hensel’s great grey box of a set is permanently tilted at an angle. The sort of angle that’s just enough to shift your perspective on your surroundings. The sort of angle that’s just enough to start you questioning things.

The same goes for the psychic world inhabited by the characters in Alistair McDowall’s new play. It’s a physical and mental landscape that is out of joint. It’s also out of time. The collection of crew members occupying this bland, functional capsule are billions of miles away from home and the rest of humanity, clinging on at the far reaches of the solar system. The sun is barely a faint flicker this far out; it is, as one character puts it, “one long night”. No days, no markers, nothing to hold onto except technology. And technology can go wrong.

That’s just what has happened as the play opens. Or, at least, something has gone wrong. After an eighteen-month stay, the first scientists to colonise Pluto are due to be picked up and returned to Earth. Except Earth isn’t answering the phone. There’s been no contact for three weeks and the crew at the research base are starting to get restless. “We’re all a bit … fraught,” says second-in-command Gilda (a nervily hair chewing, cereal chomping Jessica Raine), with delicious understatement.

At first, X is essentially a workplace drama – if one with heightened stakes and shrunken surroundings. Imagine being trapped in the same featureless space with your workmates for months on end and you begin to get the picture. The situation is desperate, but also banal. Colleagues bicker over contracts and kill the time with games of Guess Who. There are arguments about who hasn’t done the cleaning. Nerves are frayed.

But then McDowall’s play mutates. Just as it threatens to drag, its pulse – and ours – quickens. Ray (Darrell D’Silva), the captain of the crew and the astronaut who shipped them all out to Pluto, starts seeing things in the empty gloom of the not-quite-planet. Cole (Rhudi Dharmalingam) notices that the clocks have been going back by themselves. There’s a glitch in the system, a ghost in the machine. No one knows how long they’ve been stranded here, and no one is coming to pick them up. Suddenly we’re in the realm of psychological thriller, the confined research base (packed with provisions that will outlast them all) becoming a pressure cooker for the crew’s fears and tensions.

And then things get stranger. And stranger. And stranger. As the display on the digital clock scrambles, so too does time and memory and identity. Ray’s not the only one who’s seeing things. Or is he? There’s a crew member who’s maybe a crew member, or maybe a ghost, or maybe an echo of a memory, or maybe their rescuer. Maybe. False memories multiply and compete. Months or years or decades slip by. Nothing can be trusted. Eventually, even language breaks down, fracturing into single syllables and then just a vomited stream of ‘X’s. All that holds it together at the centre is Gilda, who’s sent spiralling further and further into herself.

It’s baffling and bewildering, but then it’s meant to be. The whole point of X lies in the same ambiguity that characterises its title. X can mean many things. A kiss. An error. The elusive answer to an equation. X marks the spot. In McDowall’s play it is all of these and more. And it’s distinctly, thrillingly theatrical. Sat in our seats at the Royal Court, watching these bodies on stage in front of us, we’re more aware of time passing than we would be behind a screen, where the pause function is always just a tap away. We feel time, which is crucial to this play about time dissolving.

Vicky Featherstone’s production, meanwhile, makes equally canny use of the space of the theatre to tell this fractured narrative. Prolonged blackouts dare us to see our own fears in the enveloping darkness. In between, Lee Curran’s lighting casts a queasy, subtly shifting synthetic glow, under which the characters sweat and squirm. Nick Powell’s sound design, with its nods to sci-fi, gestures towards the cinematic while working with the performances to slowly turn up the tension in a way that only a live art form can. And when things fall apart, Tal Rosner’s video designs transform the dull walls of this enclosed space capsule, twisting the strange world of the stage that bit further out of alignment.

What’s most haunting about X, though, is not the exhilarating theatrical effects or the familiar hint of space horror: the little girl at the window, the spectre of something scary in the deep, deep darkness of outer space. The production is having fun with these elements – and temporarily spooking the hell out of its audience in the process – but what lingers afterwards is the exposed fragility of time and memory. That out-of-joint-ness that doesn’t quite go away after walking out of the theatre and allowing the world to right itself.

Because we might not be on Pluto, but our senses of self are no more robust, really, than Gilda’s. Strip away clocks and relationships and familiar places and things and what are you left with? As McDowall himself has pointed out, in some ways it’s not really all that significant that the play takes place on Pluto; it’s the extreme distance of this place from home and all things known that really matters. And time is both as artificially constructed and as inexorable in its passage for us as it is for this imagined crew. The implicit questions raised – about what we remember, and what we don’t remember, and how we hold onto an idea of who we are – resonate far beyond any sci-fi setting (and the best sci-fi does, after all, have a habit of playing on our deepest fears and preoccupations).

The other thing that haunts is the pervasive atmosphere of loss. X isn’t just a play about being far from home. The home these characters yearn for is one that has already been lost – ravaged for profit and rapidly consuming itself. The snippets of information we gradually glean about this future Earth are horrifically bleak: birds have fallen from the sky, whole continents have been swallowed by the sea, trees have disappeared. It’s ecological crisis writ large. The skill of McDowall’s writing, though, is to imbue these horrors with a chilling normality. This is just the way things are. (And, I sense with a shiver, it is just the way things will be if we continue down our current track of blithe environmental destruction.)

Then again, that’s just one way of seeing it. Tilt your head at another angle and other interpretations reveal themselves. That’s the beauty and the occasional frustration of McDowall’s play, which refuses to narrow possibilities. Like that huge, off-centre grey box, it’s a container for meanings and fears and memories. X, after all, can mean many things.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Alistair McDowall

Pomona rehearsals - Alistair McDowall 2 (photo Manuel Harlan)

Originally written for The Stage.

Conversation with Alistair McDowall is cluttered with cultural references. Names of books, films and comics all fly off the playwright’s tongue; a rich and varied vocabulary of influences, from Sarah Kane to William Faulkner. “If I’m not working I spend all of my time consuming,” McDowall explains, “reading novels and plays and watching films and TV and listening to music and reading comics – whatever I can get my hands on.”

This passion for culture in all its forms – “generally I’m just a fan,” McDowall enthuses – filters through to his plays, which often marry the mundane and the fantastical. Brilliant Adventures shoved a time machine into a Middlesborough housing estate; in Captain Amazing, an ordinary dad is a reluctant, cape-clad superhero. “I think my plays sometimes feel quite noisy,” McDowall suggests, attributing this background buzz to all the cultural “stuff” that has influenced them.

“I was just obsessed with stories in any form,” he says of the many narratives that fed his creative imagination in his childhood and teens. After years of dreaming about making films, McDowall put on his first play with friends at the age of 16 and discovered a way of immediately bringing his ideas to life. From that point onwards he didn’t stop, continuing to write plays throughout school and university and staging his work in fringe venues after graduating.

The turning point came when Brilliant Adventures won a judges award as part of the Bruntwood Prize in 2011. For McDowall, the timing could not have been better: he had lost his day job in an art gallery the day before the prize was announced. “When I look back at that, the overwhelming feeling I have about winning it is just relief,” McDowall remembers. “I didn’t really have that much time to suddenly get above my station; it was just like yes, I can still eat.”

McDowall is frank about the economic restraints that hamper many would-be theatre-makers, who he describes as being “robbed of their talent” through financial circumstances. “There’s no reason why I should have been able to see this as a career,” he reflects on his own relatively modest background. “I just never really considered doing anything else other than making stories.”

When discussing his own stories, McDowall keeps coming back to their strangeness. Brilliant Adventures, which premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester after being recognised by the Bruntwood Prize, is “quite a peculiar play” according to its writer, while he describes his latest play Pomona as “really odd”.

Pomona, which is about to receive a production from McDowall’s fellow University of Manchester alumnus Ned Bennett at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, was born from the place that its title refers to. The playwright describes this desolate strip of land awaiting development in Manchester as a “ghost town” and recalls his desire to capture it on stage somehow, at the same time as being interested in conveying the experience of living in the 21st century.

“I wanted to write something that was more led by a certain kind of state of mind and mood and tone,” McDowall explains. “It feels internet-y in its form and structure and it’s about a certain type of anxiety that seems to me to be very, very contemporary.” And perhaps even more so than his previous work, it is strewn with pop cultural detritus, from TV shows to fast food.

Despite his interest in all the other cultural forms that inspire his work, McDowall keeps coming back to theatre because it’s a medium in which “you can do anything”, a realisation prompted in his teens by binge reading the plays of Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

“When I think of the things that had the biggest impact on me, it’s quite often that they reminded me that you can do whatever you want,” says McDowall. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it with passion and integrity and craft, you can do anything.”

Theatre is a “collective imagining,” he adds, later going on to describe a play as a magic trick. “I think the magic trick is almost aren’t we all having fun making this magic trick together, rather than actually trying to deceive you that it’s anything other than a magic trick,” he explains, capturing his interest in both narrative and theatricality.

The one thing that theatre-makers have to do, McDowall insists, is justify why their stories belong on stage. There might be no rules, but the question the playwright always asks himself is “does the audience still need to be in the same room for this to happen? And if the action could continue without them, if the equation is complete without them, it just doesn’t feel like it’s the best use of everyone’s time.” Or, putting it another way, “I’ve asked all these people to turn up, so I’d better fucking put on a show.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Pomona, Orange Tree Theatre

Pomona- Zeppo (Guy Rhys) and Keaton (Sarah Middleton)

Alistair McDowall has written an Escher staircase of a play. Or perhaps a spiral, looping around to almost but not quite the same point. Or perhaps it’s the M60 ring road at night, circling the city under the orange glow of the streetlights. Round and round.

Pomona is a nightmare. A thriller. A game. A mystery. A trip down the rabbit hole. A journey into the desert of the real.

Ollie is looking for her sister. She hopes to find her in Pomona – a desolate concrete wasteland just minutes from the centre of Manchester, a yawning void at the heart of the city. This place is also at the heart of McDowall’s tangled plot, the shadowy secret it hides offering the answer – or at least an answer – to his characters’ fearful questioning. Whether they want to see it, however, is another matter.

Layered on top of and bleeding into the real Pomona and the horrors it contains is another world, one of imagination and gameplay. Somewhere else in the city, sweetly enthusiastic nerd Charlie has found an unlikely friend in Keaton, the mysterious girl who joins in with the game of his own invention. Only the game has terrifying echoes of reality. Or is it the other way round?

Both McDowall’s writing and Ned Bennett’s adrenalin-pumped production are soaked in popular culture, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Indiana Jones. H. P. Lovecraft. Dungeons and Dragons. Horror movies and internet detritus. Chicken nuggets. It’s all distraction, all surface, as fleeting as the flash of the lights that flicker on and off between scenes.

This is theatre that worms its way inside the 21st-century state of mind, nestling itself amid internet memes and junk food. Pomona depicts a world where we can find out anything at the swipe of a finger. Information is endless, as one character articulates, so we have to choose. And if we choose what to know, then we also choose what not to know.

Pomona is about what we choose not to know. It is a play populated by all the things that lurk beneath: the monsters under the bed, the ghosts hiding in the shadows, and the murky, underground world that we all wilfully ignore. The dark, rising tide of urban myths. 

Everything about Bennett’s production heightens the lingering sense of unease. In designer Georgia Lowe’s sunken playing space, transforming (together with Elliot Grigg’s eerie lighting) the Orange Tree Theatre into a grimy subterranean landscape, the inhabitants of McDowall’s play scrabble around in the gutter, sucked inexorably towards the drain at its centre. There is no escape.

The characters, meanwhile, all have hints of the uncanny. Guy Rhys’ Zeppo, a man with an approach of studied ignorance towards the shady figures he deals with, leaps out of the show with cartoon-like detail, stealing the first scene with his lengthy, animated retelling of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ollie, played by the shape-shifting Nadia Clifford, seems not to be what she first appears. Even endearing, innocuous Charlie, getting most of the laughs in the capable hands of Sam Swann, has a murkier aspect. And most unsettling of all is Sarah Middleton’s precise, controlled Keaton – sometime girl, sometime monster.

But the terrifying thing is not the fiction, not the squid-headed creatures from the deep. The truly monstrous side of Pomona is to be found in the ugly, urgent truth its many tentacles prod at. As Zeppo puts it, “you go deep enough, you’ll find all this stuff, the detritus of our lives, it’s all built on this foundation of pain and shit and suffering”. That foundation usually sits, festering, at the edges of our consciousness; McDowall drags it to the centre. And when we find ourselves inside the game once again, there is a queasy feeling that this is a container for the all the things we can’t quite look in the eye. We need places to dump all the nastiness, places like Pomona.

We’re back to where we began. But wait – not quite. Is this game or reality now? Where are we? Haven’t we been here before?

Round and round. Round and round.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.