Friday 5 January 2018

The Twilight Zone - Almeida Theatre

Staging Mr. Serling

The Twilight Zone

Adapted by Anne Washburn
Directed by Richard Jones

Almeida Theatre
5 December 2017 - 27th January 2018

Well this was a real treat. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and see this excellent new production inspired by The Twilight Zone on a matinee on Wednesday 27th December and it was much better than I was expecting.

I’ve always liked The Twilight Zone (see my review of the first series here) and this new stage version, directed by Richard Jones and adapted by Anne Washburn, lead me to believe that the show was three episodes strung together. I had this preconception because I saw that the play was based on the works of three of the more prolific of The Twilight Zone writers - Rod Serling (who pretty much was The Twilight Zone, with his name and narrative performance stamped into every episode), Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.

However, the play surprised me by being a mish mash of about eight different episodes by these writers sewn together to make a surprisingly unconfusing whole, as various scenes from different stories are cross cut via a group of ‘intergalactic scene shifters’ living on a version of the iconic starry background from the show, who build, destroy and then recreate sets which are pieces of furniture and, of course, the famous ‘door’ from some of the old title sequences, to give a rough impression of the setting where these stories play out.

When I and my cousin (on a visit from Australia) entered the auditorium, we were greeted by the frame of a giant sized TV set housing the stage with the old 1950s/60s CBS Network logo on it... all in black and white. The frame edge stays for the duration of the show, of course but, when the logo on the middle section drops out to give access to the main event, I was pleased to see that the monochrome aesthetic I tend to associate with the original shows (which all aired in black and white) is carried through to all the props and costumes, giving the performance an authentic ‘TV Land’ vibe and, when colour is introduced into the costumes, it’s done so in a very subtle way. So much so that, unless you are really looking, you might fail to notice that the odd jumper or shirt may indeed have a very slight tinge of sepia or pale blue to them.

In terms of the performances and the strength of the original stories performed here, the play is a winner. I was totally enthralled by the interaction of the players and the way the stories can still draw the audience in. And, yes, being that the nature of the show was that there would quite often be a ‘final twist’ at the end of the story, there are some plots here where the ending is easy to see coming but this doesn’t make them any less of a pleasure to watch. There’s even one chunk of a story, which is tackled mostly in the second half which, given the current Brexit negotiations going on with this country, turned out to be all the more timely or, at least, as pertinent to modern attitudes as it was when the episode first aired.

I was very curious, on inspection of the nicely presented printed programme (which includes essays by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Michael Giacchino), to see how they were going to take their adaptation of the famous episode Little Girl Lost, which has been unofficially remade or, at the very least, used as a starting point, for numerous films in the intervening years (such as Poltergeist or Insidious) and I think that, although this was one of the slightly weaker adaptations on display here, the abstract nature of the constantly shifting sets did at least help the director and performers overcome certain potential staging problems so... yeah, that was way more successful than I thought it would be.

One of the things I did feel was a little ‘off’ was the rushed through, throwaway presentation of the classic episode Eye Of The Beholder. Rather than the tour de force that was the original broadcast version, we are really just treated to small highlights interspersed as mini vignettes while scene transitions are happening and, while the masks used for some of the actors here are the dead spit of those used in the original (I really don’t want to give away any spoilers here) I felt this segment could have been represented a little bit better or, at least, more full on. After all, it’s an extremely challenging thing to try to do in a stage environment so I was wondering why the heck they chose that episode to have a crack at, to be honest.

However, while these are mostly great adaptations... they’re not absolutely carbon copies in most instances and nor are they supposed to be, I think. There’s a song and dance number in one segment which I really don’t remember being in the original episode on which it was based and there are also some very funny moments involving actors suddenly channeling Rod Serling’s monologues and accidentally interacting with the scenes they are in, not to mention the hilarious use of cigarettes, that helped make this play stand out as something respectful but also unique in its own right.

My only other niggle is that, although the show has a composer credited, a fair amount of music from the obvious contributors to the show like Bernard Herrmann, possibly some Jerry Goldsmith and, of course, the cut and paste version of Marius Constant’s  famous ‘title music’ which was used from the second season onwards, were left uncredited, as far as I could make out.

However, niggles aside, this production of The Twilight Zone at the Almeida Theatre really was a great afternoon out and, while the final address to the audience maybe went on just a little longer than I would have liked, I can’t recommend this play and the work of these wonderful performers and crew strongly enough. It was totally brilliant and I’m so glad I managed to catch this before it closes in a few weeks time. This one’s only at the Almeida Theatre until the 27th of January so I would say that, if you’re close enough to the venue and you are an admirer of the classic TV series, then you should do your best to try and catch this one before it’s gone. Tickets can be booked for performances here... in the Almeida Theatre Zone.

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