Thursday, 14 December 2017

Theatre review: The Twilight Zone

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It’s quite camp there, actually.

There’s definitely something that feels seasonal about the Almeida’s latest show, although it’s hard to put my finger on quite why; maybe it’s not Christmassy as such but there’s something apt about cold days and long nights welcoming The Twilight Zone. Anne Washburn’s is the first stage adaptation of Rod Serling’s TV series – the 1960s original which Serling created, narrated and wrote most of the episodes of, rather than either of the revivals. In Richard Jones’ production John Marquez plays a version of Serling as well as, like the rest of the 10-strong cast, numerous other roles in a selection of stories from the original series that have been thrown together into a pleasingly disorienting show. Prior to the show opening the Almeida were being secretive about which episodes in particular were being adapted, so if you want to go in keeping that a surprise consider this a SPOILER ALERT about which stories go into the mix.

Paul Steinberg’s set is a black-and-white TV screen that opens up to reveal the whole cast in a roadside diner, boxed in by the familiar starfield from the TV show’s opening credits.


This is Serling’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” in which a sheriff (Matthew Needham) investigates the diner’s clientele, all passengers on a bus that’s been delayed. There were six people on the bus so why are there seven now, and which of them is a visitor from the UFO that was just seen landing? From Marquez’ prissy businessman to Cosmo Jarvis’ giggling joker and Lizzy Connolly’s dancer there’s a colourful list of suspects and it kicks the show off brilliantly, the cast really looking like they’re enjoying themselves in a way that’s instantly infectious. The sense of camp fun definitely extends to the scene changes in which the cast, dressed as extensions of the starfield, spin the eyeballs and symbols from the credits sequence while furniture is danced on and off the stage.


This opening story ends on a cliffhanger to be resolved later, as other episodes start to play in short scenes: An amnesiac (Amy Griffiths) receives a warning from a mysterious child (Adrianna Bertola) in Serling’s “Nightmare as a Child,” a man (Marquez) whose heart condition makes him avoid all excitement while awake is afraid to sleep because he thinks his dreams are conspiring to kill him (Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream,”) and a trio of recently-returned astronauts (Jarvis, Needham and Oliver Alvin-Wilson) start blinking out of existence one by one (Richard Matheson’s “And When the Sky Was Opened.”)


Most of the stories opened in the first act have concluded by the interval, but the threads start to collide in the second act as characters from the different stories start to intersect, and Serling himself ends up trapped in his own show. A few new episodes also start, with one of the most emotional strands in Serling’s “The Long Morrow” - an astronaut (Big Favourite Round These Parts Sam Swainsbury) prepares for a 50-year journey in suspended animation, only to fall in love with Sandy (Franc Ashman.)  They know she will be an old woman by the time he returns, unchanged. It’s a story with a bittersweet twist in a second act that also features the darkest episode in “The Shelter,” which takes the metaphors about Cold War fears and makes them literal.


This story also reflects the social conscience Serling gave The Twilight Zone as a friendly neighbourhood turns on each other and their prejudices come to light in a story about who feels ownership of America. It is of course a piece that fits all too easily into the present day, but that demonstrates the wealth of material Washburn has to work with – with 156 episodes in the original series, I imagine that any time a compilation was put together it would be slightly different, with a variety of episodes finding new relevance.


Not that the more serious side revealed takes away from what is often very kitschy entertainment that glories in silly prosthetics and stage magic – in a running gag about Serling always having a cigarette in his hand while doing his monologues, every character who turns to speak to the audience has a cigarette materialise in their hand, usually to their great surprise. Meanwhile every story’s closing monologue gets interrupted before it can get to the sting namechecking the title.


I did wonder if some of the most famous stories would get a look-in since their twists are so well-known: There’s no “To Serve Man” but one of the aliens from that story (Neil Haigh) gets a cameo, while "Eye of the Beholder," about a woman hiding a secret behind her bandages, gets boiled down to a simplified, silent version that tells you everything you need to know about the story. Essentially this is very clever but also a warm and loving reinvention of a TV classic: The production strikes a balance, managing neither to be too reverential to the original nor to completely make fun of it, and as long as they’re prepared for its often baffling brand of logic it could recruit a whole new generation of fans to the classic.

The Twilight Zone by Anne Washburn, based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, is booking until the 27th of January at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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