by Alistair McDowall
Gosh, if life in Pluto were a tax dodge, more off planet than off-shore, as Alistair McDowall imagines in his dystopian fantasy X directed by Vicky Featherstone, one has to wonder who's the accountant?!
In fact there are no accountants or lawyers or Panama hats in this play seemingly set in space. But it did raise a sardonic collective laugh early on as one of the crew of workers stranded on Pluto, way past their contracted six months with tax-free earnings commented, "There are easier ways to avoid tax".
And what a nightmare of unpaid uncontracted overtime it is, where zero hours takes on a whole new meaning as time itself slips and disintegrates with flashbacks and doubling back like a disturbing form of neurofeedback.
At the centre of this inside-out universe designed as a gray-green vaulting cube by Merle Hensel is Gilda (Jessica Raine), a geologist and second in command to veteran astronaut Ray (Darrell D'Silva).
The latter has a dangerous nostalgia for pre-internet twentieth century life when a tweet meant birdsong. Belligerent technician Clark (James Harkness), maths' nerd Cole (Rudi Dharmalingham) and Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz) who maintains "the ladies", the oxygen and water systems, complete the team. And could it be that the spaceship is haunted by a prepubescent spectre (Grace Doherty)?
Ostensibly this is a sci fi thriller with supernatural and ecological tentacles, just shy of two and half hours in length. Yes, it's overlong and feels stretched, especially in the second act when it starts to explain itself and irritatingly exposes a medical equivalent of "it was all a dream".structure by the end.
And yet it also has moments of resonance, when the concept is more open-ended, spanning a life crossing from the twentieth into the twenty first century, possibly the life of a woman whose name is only mentioned once.
The film and TV references are legion and most obvious - the deserted spaceship, the labyrinthine upper space out of sight in this play up a ladder with a woman taking command recalls Alien. The uniforms modelled after those on Space Trek, although more monochrome. The female protagonist bearing the name of a 1940s' movie. But also glimpses of childhood reading - Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights - and workers' values of another time.
If this had been cut to one act with the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense in a tighter structure, the plot might have felt more fulsome and absorbing. As it is, it feels as put together as the panels in the walls in order to fill the allotted time rather than organically grown. But X just about flickers into an amber light, even if doesn't quite manage to mark the spot.