If The Twilight Zone had been made in, say, 2015*, you can imagine there would have been an episode where everyone goes to sleep in a progressive, liberal democracy and wakes up in what looks and sounds and smells like the same place but is, in fact, a Fascist state. Madness, eh? A wild act of the imagination. Sadly not so much, we sigh. The whole of 2017 has felt like we are slipping into a Twilight Zone, some parallel dimension where things are off kilter.
The original 60s anthology series fed on contemporary Age of Anxiety fears, the dawn of the nuclear age shifting gender and racial norms among them, to build a kind of North American magic realism.
The genius of Anne Washburn’s adaptation of eight episodes into one play is that she makes no attempt to update the stories, leaving the fact of their existence on the Almeida stage do the talking. She mashes, boils and broils but, essentially, plays it as a period piece, charming the audience with nostalgia and sheer gumption. What she does leave at the door is any hint of horror. By my vague 80s recollections, The Twilight Zone was properly unnerving. The material hasn’t changed, but audiences have: we’re all far too attuned to these tropes and parodies of them to provoke fear. Here, the tone sticks to nostalgic, amused admiration. But for all its schlock sci-fi funnies, it’s clear there is genuine respect for the material. The Twilight Zone is made with love.
It’s a respect that extends throughout the production. Paul Steinberg’s set locates the action within a TV-shaped box, its interior plastered jet black and pierced with stars: a simple design inviting us on an adventure through TV via the theatre into the nature of stories and the power of the imagination. From the stunningly monotone set and sleek, sexy costumes (I would like to own them all, even the GI outfits – especially the GI outfits) to the music (always present to guide the mood, never overbearing), the whole thing pulsates with a unified energy.
It’s a blast for the cast too. The feline Matthew Needham and the febrile Cosmo Jarvis in particular serve up a feast of full-realised characters in fleeting snapshots, but its biggest triumph is an ensemble piece. This is a cast that knows when to breathe knowing humour into Big Headed Aliens, mysteriously reappearing cigarettes and creepy puppets, and when to ham it doing funnies with the fourth wall. And there’s plenty of meat to work with when things need to be hit straight, as when neighbours turn on each other when the atom bomb is about to drop, exposing the deep racial fault lines in the American Dream. Nothing to laugh at here. And no reason to shoehorn the contemporary relevance. As an audience, it’s satisfying to be given the credit to know when to laugh and when to listen.
The Twilight Zone is at its best when being thoroughly weird – baffling cabaret and ventriloquism acts et al – yet, as it jumps around it never feels disjointed. The show build slowly towards the same frenzied crescendo as the original shows, the climax rewarding us with the payoff we’ve been waiting for: the classic twist, slick-suited John Marquez as Rod Serling delivering his monologue and, yes, that music.
Washburn’s talent for appropriating pop culture into something more than the sum of its parts is unassailable. With The Twilight Zone, what lands in the moment as a bonkers, fun and fairly light evening at the theatre slowly seeps into the consciousness as something much more satisfying, asking not so much ‘What does this mean?’ but ‘How does it make you feel?’ And the answer: a little bit anxious.
* It kind of was – it’s called Black Mirror.
The Twilight Zone is on until 27 January 2018 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.