The Twilight Zone
Based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson
Adapted by Anne Washburn
Directed by Richard Jones
Reviewer: Tom Baker
Put it down to our climate of political anxiety running in parallel with our rapidly evolving technology: with shows like Black Mirror and Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, the science fiction anthology appears to be in ascendancy once more. A similarly volatile cocktail provided the base for the granddaddy of the sci-fi morality tale, The Twilight Zone. Now the Cold War-era TV classic has been resurrected on the Almeida stage.
We open on an unassuming fifties diner, where a local state trooper’s (Matthew Needham, recently seen in the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing) suspicions are raised by a busload of snowed-in passengers. The driver counted six when he picked them up, but a seventh has somehow appeared along the way. The cop thinks this head-scratcher may be connected to a UFO that crash-landed nearby…
This is the springboard from which a half-dozen other stories from the show’s original run are launched, the action switching between stories at a dizzying pace as the superb cast inhabit a chorus-line of different roles. Tales of deceiving appearances, conspicuous, the fabric of reality tearing and perceptions being confounded, all firmly rooted in the sci-fi genre.
A pilot (Oliver Alvin-Wilson), recovering from a high-profile crash, remembers a crew member who appears to have vanished from existence. An astronaut (Sam Swainsbury) volunteers for a mission that will take him away from his beloved (Franc Ashman) for the better part of fifty years. A man (John Marquez) who hasn’t slept in four days confesses to a shrink (Alvin-Wilson again) that he thinks the woman of his dreams (Lizzy Connolly) is trying to kill him. A couple (Cosmo Jarvis and Ashman) are awoken in the night by their daughter’s (Adrianna Bertola) cries, only to find her bedroom empty; yet the cries persist. Some of these vignettes are solely that, appearing briefly during set changes. Others we hear first in pre-recorded voice-over during these liminal moments, before hearing them performed live later on. To say any more about the stories would be to spoil them. Or would it?
In this instance the original scripts by Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont have been reworked by Anne Washburn, the American playwright best known for her previous pop culture deep dive, Mr Burns. That piece took the familiar phenomenon of The Simpsons — as universal an experience as it’s possible to get for the millennial generation, who can communicate solely in obscure gags, plot lines and “steamed ham” memes — and extrapolated it into a post-apocalyptic setting, where re-enacting episodes became a sort of pagan ritual. The Twilight Zone has almost as much cultural cache as The Simpsons, and in fact, its current standing is partly down entirely to its being parodied in the animated sitcom’s Halloween specials.
Like Mr Burns, it’s all very kitsch and knowing (a few times the cast near enough literal wink at the audience), which often works against the production’s best interests. Perhaps it’s unavoidable, given how well known many of these plots have become, how hackneyed their twists have gotten since their initial airing, and the cultural baggage The Twilight Zone is lumbered with.
The design of this adaptation leans heavily into the iconography of the old show. Paul Steinberg transforms the cramped Almeida stage into an expanse of white stars on black sky, and the white door from the classic opening titles appears in the set up of every scene. All of Deborah Andrews and Nicky Gillibrand’s costume designs (and the make-up) follow the grayscale palette of the black-and-white TV broadcasts. An old cathode-ray set even dangles intermittently above proceedings, displaying static and snatches of other, future scenes.
The camp aspects of the play may lose some audiences, from the stagehands in starry leotards and ski goggles twirling images from the TV show’s credits in between ostentatiously adding or removing props, to the musical number towards the end of the first half, and especially the running gag of characters beginning to recite one of Serling’s monologues that bookended each episode only to be interrupted before stating the titular phrase.
The moments that play it straight, however, are undeniably goosebump-raising. The performances, snappy dialogue and some neat sleight-of-hand magic tricks (conceived by illusionists Richard Wiseman and Will Houstoun) prove that Washburn’s adaptation, directed by Olivier Award-winner Richard Jones, can land those moments of uncanny eeriness when it wants to.
In fact the strongest portion of the Almeida’s Twilight Zone may be the straightest. In a neat little one-act which plays out uninterrupted in the second half, a group of neighbours are driven to despair by air raid sirens blaring over their suburban homes, revealing their true selves as they try to break into the fallout shelter of another local family (Neil Haigh, Amy Griffiths, and Bertola). It’s urgent, intense, not without humour, and more than a little resonant with contemporary fears.
Unlike the metafictional finale that follows it, it’s not submerged in so many layers of irony there’s a danger of smothering the whole thing before it ends. An odd duck which should absolutely be applauded for taking some brave leaps even if, unlike Washburn’s previous, they never quite manage to transcend the peculiarity of its premise.
Runs until: January 27th 2018 at Almeida Theatre