Almeida Theatre, London – until 27 January 2018
TO BOLDLY DREAM… MAINLY OF PLYWOOD AND PROPS… The Twilight Zone was, long before the phrase was coined, “appointment-to-view television”. In the US in the 50s and 60s, families gathered round and gasped at the hokey, portentous suspenseful mystery series (like a precursor of our own Tales of the Unexpected, only with more to-camera moralizing).
Adaptor Anne Washburn slightly annoyed me a few years ago with her “post-electric” Mr Burns, in which all that a post-apocalyptic civilization could remember was Simpsons plots. Now she’s back at the Almeida with a mash-up of eight of the original Twilight Zone stories, cut up, interwoven, and presented with an admirably straight face in a style retro-kitsch, camp and knowing. It is executed in a black-box of vague stars with a dangling grey TV and a stage crew half-visibly trundling the furniture around in camouflage star-studded black onesies, as in the golden age of live telly.
The ingredients are all there – Cold War neurosis, space travel nightmares, hospital drama, half-digested psychiatry, aliens, ghostly warnings, carnival grotesques, and worrying erotic dreams about Maja the Catwoman (Lizzy Connolly gets a big number in furry black tights before turning into a Hideous Bandaged Head Lady).
One poor woman wakes up post-cryogenically in a future century wearing a tight tinfoil dress and black lipstick. And at one point, pleasingly, someone has to be rescued from the Fourth Dimension by the family dog. The way you know you have stumbled into the Fourth Dimension, by the way, is that there are whirly cardboard op-art discs being carried across the stage, and an upside-down placard of E=mc2.
It is at times hilarious, with some fine deadpan 1950s performances from the cast of 10 and three supernumeraries doing the trundling. Richard Jones directs and keeps it moving, a bit confusingly at times, and the only sustainedly long section comes in the second half when the series briefly gives up on sci-fi and supernatural imaginings to portray with unnerving realism a hysterical rivalry between neighbours during a supposed nuclear attack with only one bunker available. That is the most engaging section, with a very topical race row and an attack on the latest immigrant in the striking cry of “This is a nation not a clown car, the entire world is not going to fit in here!”.
At last John Marquez as the (very straight-faced) TV host-narrator concludes by addressing us meta-theatrically with a very 1950s sermonette, reassuring us that as we leave we will not really plummet into an endless field of stars but claiming that “with a few frail bodies, the shifting of artificial light and electronic sound, fabric, plywood, can-do and most importantly your own mental technology, we have created aliens, a living dream, an imaginary child, a dimensional vortex,…” etc .
To which one can only reply “Actually, what you have created is a more like a cheerful holiday-season kitsch tribute to a former age of telly. It passed the time, no more”.
Box Office 020 7359 4404 to 27 Jan