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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

After Pomona‘s triumph, Vicky Featherstone brings a cast headed by Jessica Raine to bridge Alistair McDowall’s move from science fantasy to science fiction.  Merie Hensel designs.


Vicky Featherstone brings Alistair McDowall’s latest sci-fi drama to the Royal Court, in a cast led by Jessica Raine and a set lurching at differently-planed angles by Merle Hensel that begins to suggest it too might speak.

After his dystopic Pomona was brought across to the NT Temporary Theatre to stamp his imaginative gambits, it became clear that McDowall carves his territory where there’s a menacing void or at least vortex. With Pomona H.P. Lovecraft and gaming fed a subterranean cocktail close to Dr Who without the Doctor. In X, four – or five? – British characters on a Pluto research station fall in on themselves after all contact with anything ceases; reference to reality is a fall of collapsing leaves.

In fact astronaut Clark, played by a James Harkness both emotionally eloquent and sometimes indecipherable, saw the last tree, when held aloft by his grandfather in Mexico. The eldest astronaut, washed-up pilot Ray, saw all birds fall out of the sky, for good. The earth’s dying, not too far from now. Ray – avuncular Darrell D’Silva – suggests underachievers and the British are sent here, ‘Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there.’ Nothing learnt then. He teaches bird-sounds to Clark. It’s Clark’s algorithms the scientist Cole (Rudi Dhamalingam) uses to prove they’re no idea of time any more. Later, the X of the title takes on its own meaning as the throw of language itself dishevels into the binary codes of signals.

McDowall too perhaps reaches out from his science-fantasy zone. He’s a trifle unmeridianed in space when for instance suggesting a trip home from Pluto would take a few months. The way science strands with narrative in so much of Caryl Churchill – her influence here’s inevitable – might have been welcome.

That’s early on. McDowall’s unfolding of a chronological sequence disrupted by the cast eventually losing digital time relies on sleight-of-narrative with a few equally disruptive scenes latterly seen as out of sequence. He’s done this in Pomona but here it’s more manipulated, less a wondrous spectacle.

The fixation on a girl people glimpse, then more, and the apparent elimination of cast isn’t simply one of distortion like Solaris. McDowall, a great alluder-to and user of sci-fi might be happy that there’s a whiff of that strangulated masterwork here, along with its etiolated world, that seems characteristic of him. That’s something of 2001 too and tonally that haunting poem ‘Flannan Isle’ by W. W. Gibson about lighthouse-men who vanished, sparking Maxwell Davies’ opera The Lighthouse. This station‘s self-sustaining, haunting in itself. McDowall’s used young girls before: at least here he doesn’t invert all expectations.

Any emotional kick comes not with narrative horrors but access of feeling, connective sequences lurching into sense: when other characters swim like a new planet into our ken. In the last third, Raine’s Gilda, waxing much on falling apart, feeling unfit as captain from the start, can offer her continual tears to a purpose. Her finely-honed leucocholy, that white melancholy Coleridge described of himself, can own its pain, Raine’s relationship with a dead mother clicks, we’re offered something more complex as earlier stories re-circulate. Other characters are necessarily etched at best.

The last third, shorn of certain McDowall-isms collapses eloquently on itself in a desperate gambit of relating. It’s what we’ve missed till now. McDowall’s not known for humour but there’s bite, wit, even tenderness here. That, in a play more traditionally anchored – or marooned – than his other work, is also something fresh in this playwright. Featherstone – and Raine – inject brio into McDowall’s staging-post.