The Twilight Zone at the Almeida Theatre review ***

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The Twilight Zone

Almeida Theatre, 13th January 2018

Based on my entirely objective reviews, (of which more to follow when I get round to it), I see that the Almeida has, over the last three years or so, consistently offered the best theatrical experience in London. No great surprise really given the writers, casts and especially directorial talent, (notably AD Rupert Goold and Associate Director Robert Icke), at its disposal, but, still, it has been a remarkable run. There have been hiccups along the way though and one of these was, for me, if not for many others, Mr Burns. Too drawn out once you have got past the central conceit, and too pleased with itself.

Having said that the riff on contemporary culture, in that case one episode of the Simpsons (Cape Feare), was a splendid nugget of an idea and I could see where writer Anne Washburn was headed. So it didn’t seem like too much of a risk to sign up for the Twilight Zone, her reshaping of 8 of the original episodes from the ground-breaking, eponymous 1960s CBS TV show. For the benefit of you young’uns think vintage Black Mirror. Now I am pretty sure I have seen a few of the episodes, they must have been on terrestrial telly decades ago when we had no choice over what we watched, but I can’t really remember any of them. So its appeal lay more in its reputation. Same for the SO who was keen to come along, the Almeida being one of her favourite haunts as well.

Now a domestic crisis meant the SO had to leave at the interval, which was not a cause for deep regret. Why? Well this production didn’t quite come together in our view. The cutting up of the stories is, by and large, an admirable idea, highlighting their fractured, and paranoiac, nature, and keeping the audience on their toes, but it also led to an overdose of scene shifting. The way the cast was incorporated into these shifts, rigged up in dark boiler suits and googles, like disturbed chemical industry technicians, was inventive, and the set and costumes from Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand was immensely creative. The monochrome tones, the use of spinning cut-outs to simulate the memorable graphics of the TV series, the framing of the set as if in a retro TV screen, incorporating a back and white TV set dangling above the stage, the starry background. All this conjured up the look and feel of the series. The lighting design from Mimi Jordan Sherin, together with the sound and music from Sarah Angliss, Christopher Shutt and Stephen Bentley-Klein, and the illusions of Richard Wiseman and Will Houstoun, all elevated the visual and aural impression.

Now none of this should come as a surprise given the provence and history of director Richard Jones who revels in the playful, or, dare I say, cartoonish. The problem is the uncertain tone this creates. The production is an homage to the original series but the concept and design leaves it veering towards parody. Not saying this is wrong: there are plenty of funny moments here, most notably the running gap with cigarettes, and a theatrical adaption of a “cult 1960’s sc-fi series” for a contemporary audience was hardly ever going to get away with any other approach. But it does rather drown out the messages of alienation, delusion and psychosis that permeate the original. The Twilight Zone was all about projecting inner fears onto apparent external realities. Nightmares, other possible lives, cracks in time and space, paradoxes, you get the picture. With an unhealthy fear of the other.

Once the conceit in each story is revealed however, there is little room to develop and there is nothing in the characters. As drama then this lacks dimension. Which is unfortunate for an entertainment that seeks to explore human reaction to other dimensions. Now I don’t think this is the fault of the cast, all ten of them hurl themselves into the many roles they are asked to play. Nor, as I say, is it the fault of the creative team. And I would not criticise Anne Washburn’s text. No I think the problem is that the stories themselves do not stand up to theatrical adaption because there is not enough there in the first place. What works for half an hour on the box falls short on the stage however clever the manipulation.

So, overall, a flattish evening. Well worth seeing, and hearing, and in places there are some real thrills, but not a truly engaging piece of theatre. Maybe we set our expectation bar to high. Blame the Almeida. Too good at what they do.

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