Almeida Theatre, London – until 27 January 2018
On the surface, the rationale for staging an adaptation of selected stories from hokey 1950s US TV phenomenon, The Twilight Zone, may seem murky. In practice, Anne Washburn’s version for the Almeida, following her Simpsons-based show Mr Burns, is a sharp tribute, recreating both the creakiness and the prescience of the original show. Directed by Richard Jones, best known for his operas, the evening uses eight of the original episodes, weaving them together as shorter pieces and long themes in the style of musical theatre. The action is tightly choreographed, with the nine-strong cast playing multiple characters in a black and white world, wearing black and white costumes and performing in black box speckled with white stars and occasionally, on a television set.
The Twilight Zone has much greater cultural presence in the US. Over here we know the theme and not much more, but there its most best episodes are famous. The material chosen by Washburn soon shows just how influential its ideas have become. Aliens land, government agents lurk, parallel dimensions open up beneath beds, sinister little girls appear in corridors and dreams become reality. Everything from Tales of the Unexpected to Doctor Who owes a debt.
Washburn deftly mixes the tales, opening with a bus-load of passengers stranded in a diner on a snowy night, and a policeman tracking the occupant of a mysterious craft that has crash-landed nearby. The scenario is spooky Agatha Christie spiked with hokey comedy in a blend that brings the 1950s straight back to life. The first half of the show concerns aliens and strange dimensions, with inexplicable happenings in the safety of family homes and down-home bars that break through a porous barrier between reality and fantasy. It is creepy but comforting.
After the interval, the darkness turns up a notch, as man struggles to stay awake to avoid dying in his dreams, and becomes genuinely touching with a love-struck couple who try to put their relationship in cryogenic suspensions for a fifty-year space voyage. The finale is an extended story about the racial and social meltdown of American society in the face of a nuclear attack, as everyone says a lot of things they regret in their struggle for a place in the only shelter in a suburban street.
This complex array of short stories is expertly delivered by a fine ensemble. John Marquez ranges from hard-bitten New Yoyker with a thousand yard stare to the show’s narrator, delivering monologues to camera with an authentic lack of dramatic timing. Adrianna Bertola gives us not one but two sinister little girls. Oliver Alvin-Wilson does a baffled bus driver, a stoic physicist probing child-swallowing black holes and a psychiatrist faced with the impossible. Lizzy Connolly is a vampish torch singer from a nightmare, with a musical number of her own. Cosmo Jarvis is a bystander with an infuriating laugh, and a test pilot whose crew may not be real.
Richard Jones oversees a beautifully-staged piece of theatre. Paul Steinberg’s set gives us whirling cardboard spirals and men in star-strewn black. Mimi Jordan Sherin gives the cast highly convincing, raking black and white TV lighting. Two illusionists, Richard Wiseman and Will Houston, change newspaper headlines before our eyes and make cigarettes mysteriously appear in characters hands as they find themselves temporarily possessed by the narrator’s persona. “But I don’t even smoke!” they exclaim. As seasonal entertainment, The Twilight Zone is clever and classy, but it does more than that. Washburn’s selection of stories shows how the fragile post-war US social settlement pulled at the seams, threatening to come spectacularly apart, as it does again in the Trump era.