Entertainment & Arts

Jessica Raine lives the sci-fi dream in X at the Royal Court

Jessica Raine in X Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Jessica Raine plays Gilda, a member of the marooned crew on Pluto

"I'm a massive science fiction fan so this is a dream come true," says actress Jessica Raine.

The Call the Midwife star is leading the cast of X, Alistair McDowall's claustrophobic, and often terrifying, new play at London's Royal Court theatre.

Set on a research base on Pluto, the skeleton crew have lost contact with Earth and are waiting for help to arrive.

Their sense of isolation grows as the base's digital clock starts to behave strangely - and soon it seems that time itself is breaking down around them.

"I've always hankered to be in something set in a dystopian future," says Raine, whose TV roles such as Midwife, Jericho and Wolf Hall often see her in period costume.

Not so in X, where she gets to wear clothes with a futuristic insignia and watch a colleague vomit into a space helmet.

The actress lists the Alien sci-fi horror franchise among her favourite films.

"I like to think of this as my Ripley moment," she says, adding that X playwright McDowall gave her with an action figure of Ellen Ripley - the character played by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series.

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption The play features an impressive space base set by Merle Hensel

In X Raine plays Gilda, a nervous crew member who struggles to cope with the isolation of being at the edge of the Solar System.

"I said yes to it because I thought the writing was phenomenal," she says. "I read it on my honeymoon and on the long flight back I couldn't sleep.

"My heart was thumping and I couldn't stop thinking about it. It did something to my physically. I felt like I had to play Gilda."

McDowall describes X as "quite a personal" play.

"I was trying to write about what it means to be alone. There's a lot of stuff that springs from my own childhood and securities. It's been a strange and emotional ride."

The writer, whose previous works include Pomona and Brilliant Adventures, doesn't regard X as science fiction.

"It's a play set in space but I don't think it's a space play. I think of it more as a psychological drama. Like a lot of science fiction, it's not about space or Pluto. It's about people on Earth."

He also reveals he wrote the play by hand.

"I was very aware of its space setting and its genre tropes, so I tried to ground myself as much as possible and wrote it with pen and paper."

Image copyright Manuel Harlan
Image caption Is there something out there in the darkness of Pluto's surface?

Why did he set it on Pluto?

"It's the furthest away place from Earth in the popular imagination. You either say Timbuktu or Pluto. And Pluto's a bit of an underdog. It's not a planet anymore and they didn't know what to call it for a while," says McDowall.

"A huge part of the play is about being being away from home and Pluto is the most extreme position I could set that situation."

X is at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 7 May.

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