X (Royal Court)

Vicky Featherstone directs Alistair McDowall’s new play set on Pluto

In space, no-one can hear you question the nature of theatre itself… Alistair McDowall is a writer of real formal daring. Pomona, his breakthrough hit, was shaped like a Möbius strip. Its plot looped out of logical sense. Before that his debut, Brilliant Adventures, put a time machine in a council flat, punching a wormhole through kitchen sink realism.

This time McDowall plonks us on Pluto. In a space station billions of miles from home, a British crew appear to have lost contact with mission control. It's been three weeks since anyone called – but the comms system seems to be in full working order. Stuck together in deep space, for who knows how long, they start to lose the plot.

It's basically Huis Clos in space: hell is other people on Pluto. Or a flatshare comedy a long way from anywhere or anything or anyone. Gilda (Jessica Raine) grows anxious about their abandonment. Astrophysicist Clark (James Harkness) gives up all hope. Ray, the astronaut that ferried them through space, swears he saw a young girl at the window, a scar where her mouth should be. Darrell D'Silva plays him like a Gerry Anderson puppet, with barrel-chested bravado.

Cut off from earth, from the rest of the human race, they start to slip out of social conventions. Time breaks down first – the clock slips out of sync – but with it goes the past, history, collective memory, personal memory, eventually even language and identity. These are the very things that make us human. They're also the things that make theatre theatre.

However, McDowall signals the breakdown too strongly too soon. Almost everything the crew do links up to language – from games of Guess Who to Ray's birdsong whistles. Not only do you get one step ahead, draining all the play's dramatic tension, but the play puts its themes before its situation. In deep space, with space at a premium, you don't take cereal boxes or board games – no matter how pithily they symbolise childishness. Exposition is heavy-handed too: crew members explain their circumstances to one another. Sci-fi needs to be airtight. This isn't.

Nothing Vicky Featherstone's production does can fix that. For all Merle Hensel's disjointed, off-its-axis design sends you cross eyed and Lee Curran's even artificial lighting makes everything alien, you keep popping out of the play. Hard to care about characters doomed from the off either, despite the way each actor disintegrates. Rudi Dharmalingham's ultra-rational Cole self-combusts, Harkness fizzles out and Raine melts away into nothing.

As the play breaks down, and the script says less and less, X starts to mean more and more. As scraps become significant, it grows ambiguous, until your sense of its symbolism starts to slide. A play about isolation and individualism morphs into one about digitisation and death, the shape of a life and the silencing of women.
Really, X is a play about meaning itself. The stage is metaphorical space: real objects and people stand in for fictional ones; its stories mean more than they suggest. As in equations, one thing equals another. McDowall's space station is deliberately indistinct: a variable – X. His play means anything, everything and nothing at once – whatever you want and whatever I want. It's theatre as black hole and, at base, it's a trick shot. You spend all your energy chasing its meaning, battling to unravel its coding, only to find bog-standard ideas beneath. For all I admire the concept and daring, I was left thinking: Y?

X runs at the Royal Court until 7 May.