Royal Court Theatre, London – until 7 May 2016
TO BOLDLY GO OFF YOUR HEAD, IN SPACE
We are in the melamine mess-room of a space pod on the dead, black planet Pluto, with a crew of five. Unless one of them is a delusion of the nervy second-in-command Gilda (Jessica Raine). The captain is Darrell D’Silva, always a treat, especially here since he is the only one who remembers living trees and birdsong back on now-blighted earth. He plays around with wooden bird-calls to remember. The others are an intensely annoying teenage Scottish comms techie (James Harkness) and a dour mathematician (Rudi Dharmalingam). Oh, and Mattie who does the “life systems” , and pops in to chat to Gilda, girl-to-girl, about how it helps the tedium if you masturbate three times a day.
Not that anyone’s sure when the day starts and ends, because the digital clock on the wall has gone mad, and it looks as if the relief ship from Earth isn’t coming, being three months (eventually several years) overdue. And maybe Earth doesn’t care anyway, because all the blonde Americans are colonizing Mars as a super-race, and Pluto is for the old, the underqualified and the unwanted.
So it’s political theatre at the Court, Jim, but not as we know it… Though actually, Alistair McDowall’s play is not the first time the Royal Court has flirted with sci-fi: there was 2071, at the end of The Low Road a few years back there was a spaceship, unless I dreamed it. But this is full-on, trad dystopian sci-fi with a rising edge of psychosis and alienation.
Fine in principle: I grew up with James Blish and Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, so a stranded spaceship is happy home turf to me. At first the interaction between the crew – a woefully unprofessional bunch once the three-month delay starts to grate – is credible and entertaining enough, with traditional post-apocalyptic chat about the last tree and the overcrowded earth with its vanished nations. Raine is excellent as the anxious snippy Gilda, the unsure new promotee at anyone’s office; D’Silva is solid and likeable as Captain Ray. So a certain dismay attends early news of his funeral , but what with the increasing time-slip, and delusion and memory sequences (very fashionable after the recent Zeller plays) we do see Ray again , hallucinating a scar-faced child (Amber Fernée, admirably deadpan) and cutting his throat.
But the rest just gradually go mad, angry, and in two cases dead, leaving Gilda and some cracking sound and light effects to a private dementia involving a giant pulsating dead bird, interestingly worked into a possibly real or possibly delusional pregnancy and more appearances from young Fernée, this time without the scar.
And that’s it. Disappointment hovers over the second half, despite the increasing drama and a gabbled algorithmic craziness between the last survivors. As a study in what isolation and hopelessness does to prisoners it is reasonably interesting, but the absence of any back-story or credibility in any character except D’Silva is a serious drawback. The nihilistic vision in the end is more depressing than engrossing and there is a point when – a rare thing for me – the temptation is to look at your watch and find there are 25 minutes left to run but it’s already mired in sub-Beckettian surrealism.
In the event it wasn’t quite that long, and an effective last speech takes us back to remembering the lost, polluted, drowned, wrecked home planet. Which I suppose was the author’s point. Fair enough.
Box office: 020-7565 5000 to 7 May
But the third is for the soundscape and lighting. (Lee Curran, Nick Powell, Tal Rosner)