Between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge is a dimension of imagination. An area we call the Twilight Zone.”
Amidst all the Christmas shows and pantomimes filling theatres in December, the Almeida Theatre takes on this brave adaptation of the early 1960s American sci-fi TV series. I’d never watched the original show, but being a fan of old sci-fi, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see how a cult show could translate from screen to stage. I have to admit, my expectations were high: the Almeida’s minimalist posters and cryptic descriptions had piqued my interest.
American playwright Anne Washburn adapts eight separate episodes of the 150-episode TV series but chooses to string them together as a whole. Different stories intertwine and intersect: a mysterious alien guest has creeped into a diner in a snowstorm; a young girl gets whisked from her bedroom and trapped in between dimensions; astronauts just returned to Earth start to vanish one by one. These are just three of the eight episodes, and it already sounds like an eclectic mix of stories that couldn’t possible form a cohesive whole. But, somehow, Washburn manages to achieve just that: she jumps between stories with ease – never in a way that seems confused or unintentional – to create something truly unique.
“Somehow, director Anne Washburn manages to jump between stories with ease”
The real standout is the final story: a nuclear threat and everyone’s consequent race to save themselves bring to light racial tensions between neighbours in an otherwise idyllic suburb. A black couple, a white couple, and a Jewish immigrant break into a fierce fight over who has the most right to their friend’s nuclear bunker, one into which they are trying to force their way. It brings up ideas on what it is to be American, as each individual argues their superior claim, highlighting the absurdity of nationalism and drawing not-so-subtle comparisons to the present day. Opinion might vary on whether this is timely and topical or an exploitation of a subject that, at present, seems ubiquitous in the media. Personally, it felt apt – the nuclear threat characterised the early 60s captures the essence of the time period of the show whilst being undeniably relevant to the audience seeing it today.
There are obviously fond references to the original show that were, as a Twilight Zone novice, a little lost upon me, but this doesn’t really hamper enjoyment, and most of the references are enjoyable as jokes in their own right. One running gag across the stories features mysteriously appearing cigarettes, what I later learned to be a reference to the constant smoking in the original show. Knowledge of the original show does clearly make this funnier, but it’s played in such a way that it becomes a joke in its own right.
The stage is set up to look like an old TV set, complete with the CBS logo every time the curtain is down. The original show was in black and white, and this production sticks to that aesthetic, with a black backdrop covered in white stars and a cast dressed primarily in black and white. I was a massive fan of the aesthetic and, especially, the 50s and 60s outfits of the cast. The staging of the play is part tribute and part parody, and – perhaps inevitably, considering its source material – often very, very weird. There are moments when actors in black jumpsuits and goggles carry cardboard images across the stage in an imitation of opening and closing credits – it sounds bizarre but it’s undeniable that it works. It manages to hit the right balance between genuine imitation and parody so that, with the appropriate suspension of disbelief, you can buy into it.
“The acting really captures the cheesy vibe of late-50s/early-60s television”
The cast is great: the actors play multiple roles across the different stories, and no single person really stands out. But this seems almost like a conscious effort that makes it feel more like a TV show with an ensemble cast rather than the heavy focus on a few leads that we more commonly see in theatre. There are obviously flaws, but honestly, they just add to the character of the performance. The uniform overacting from the cast captures the cheesy late 50s/early 60s vibe and makes you feel like you’re really watching television enacted before you – a show within a show in the best way.
I left the performance determined to start watching the original show, at least to see the eight episodes adapted, but knowing, in the back of my guilty mind, that it was all too likely I would end up binging all 150 episodes over my Christmas holiday. If the idea of all that time lost to TV doesn’t scare you, or if you’re already a die-hard fan of the TV series, this adaptation of The Twilight Zone is one not to be missed.
Where? Almeida Theatre When? Until 27th January How Much? From £10