“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 is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
This, for those who do not know, is Rod Serling’s opening monologue to the iconic sixties TV show, The Twilight Zone, an anthology of unrelated stories, each interrogating one or more of contemporary America’s social anxieties. Taken altogether, the 156 instalments act as a collection of post-modern fables, Serling’s narrator a Hans Christian-Anderson for the age of nuclear war, race-riots and space-travel.
Despite the relevance of these issues in the current period of political mayhem, the new adaptation of the show for the Almeida Theatre may still come as a bit of a surprise. Screen-to-stage transformation are not wholly uncommon, in fact there is a whole range of examples in London this winter what with Network at the National as well as The Exorcist and Young Frankenstein in the West-End.
However, what makes this show such a curiosity is the fact that the source material remains mostly unknown in the UK. Sitting next to me in the theatre was an American fan who described how popular the show is in on the other side of the Atlantic, episodes played non-stop for 24 hours every Christmas. But although it has a huge cultural legacy, making its influence known in shows like Twin Peaks, Black Mirror or in Jordan Peele’s hit film Get Out, it is a product that simply does not command the same prestige over here.
For this theatrical version, Anne Washburn has chosen to weave together 8 popular episodes, dipping and diving across storylines with recurring motifs that seep between them. We are shown the hunt for an Alien among a group of stranded bus-passengers and meet a man who cannot sleep for fear of being killed by a female circus performer. We see a woman invite a little girl into her house only to realise it is a version of her younger self, and two parents who lose their daughter through a worm-hole in her bedroom wall. Each vignette is surreal and disturbing and when melded together as they are here have a collective effect which is dizzyingly strange.
Of course, one of the problems of including so many different stories in one show is that it invites unfavourable comparison between segments as well as potential criticisms of incoherence. Certainly, some of the different sections are more effective at getting under your skin than others. A story about a slowly disappearing crew of pilots requires alot of exposition and is undermined by its necessarily detached characters and inconclusive ending. It is noticeably inferior to another sketch about a family who refuse to share their bunker with their neighbours, triggering a searing argument about race, class and nationality.
Whilst the former feels crammed in, failing to compliment any of the other stories, the latter is clearly chosen to resonate with today’s audience, something the nervous laughter and groans of recognition do something to prove. Similarly, a particularly famous episode from the original series about a woman with a bandaged face is reduced to a tiny side-show during a transition between scenes, barely comprehensible for those not familiar with Serling’s original.
Indeed, the show works best when it treats its material with good faith. For this production, the Almeida has had a proscenium arch built, framing the performance space in a way that replicates a television screen. It has the effect of distancing spectators and morphing the action into a kind of pastiche, patronising the very earnest subject matter through the act of mimicry and exaggeration. Serling’s monologue, for instance, is repeatedly interrupted in a quasi-slapstick way. The scenes that make the biggest impression however are those that break through these mannered, sometimes farcical, stylisations. Although a lovestory between astronaut and mission controller seems a tad unbelievable, for example, the straightness with which it is played renders it more moving than much of the rest.
With a brilliantly evocative sound and lighting design, and several magic-tricks up its sleeves, The Twilight Zone still thrills in the scenes which might not live up to the incisive TV original. Although you are sometimes wondering how much of the action qualifies as filler, you are never close to switching off. This is a good winter-show: something fun, clever and accessible. Whimsical in its worse moments but not without teeth, anyone in possession of a ticket to The Twilight Zone should know they’re holding a passport to another dimension.