BWW Review: THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Almeida Theatre
Adapter Anne Washburn and director Richard Jones set themselves quite a challenge in bringing eight episodes of Sixties cult television series The Twilight Zone to the stage. If the show is to work at all, everything needs to work perfectly - and it doesn't. That said, there's much to admire (and, in that counter-intuitive way that is so often the case with theatre, there'd be more still if 30 minutes or so were cut).
We open on a gloomy Fifties diner, reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, but etched in monochrome leavened by 25 shades of grey that provides the aesthetic throughout the production (B/W TV even in the USA back then). Matthew Needham gives a fine turn as a Warhole-esquely camp irate passenger amongst whose number there may or may not hiding an incognito alien.
But are we supposed to laugh? Is this comic parody? Kitschy pastiche? Loving tribute? It's a fitting start to the eight vignettes (though they're a bit more than that) because the tone never quite settles - which can be a good thing, but in this case merely pulls the narratives out of focus.
Partly because, in the first half especially, we switch between storylines at a bewildering speed, actors reappearing in new costumes as new characters in new situations (and the clothes, by Claire Wardroper, are superb from first to last).
That might just be part of the deal - science fiction is supposed to leave plenty of work for the imagination after all - but all this coming and going undermines our commitment to the characters. Just as we get to know them and start to care about them, they're gone, sometimes to return and sometimes not. Maybe it's just another example of how hard it is to bring any television to the stage.
Not that it's easy to bring science fiction's peculiar appeal to stage or screen either - for example, the big budget and star quality of Bryan Cranston could do nothing recently with my absolute favourite short story in any genre, Phillip K Dick's Human Is, eviscerated recently in Channel Four's Electric Dreams Season One closer.
So credit where it's due for The Shelter, presented more or less as a stand alone feature, freighted with early 60s nuclear paranoia, the dark side of Donald Fagan's sublime "New Frontier". With one family "safely" underground, neighbours bicker amongst themselves, as they try to talk, then fight, their way in, the descent into Lord of the Flies-style antagonism, the lines drawn up along racial difference and entitlement to "own America" swift and convincing.
Even a couple of years ago, us cosmopolitan sophisticates would have sneered and smiled at the hicks in the sticks with their quaint residual antebellum ways and relaxed in the knowledge that things aren't like that any more.
We're not so sure now.
With tone and continuity swerving like a bus on ice, it's not easy to get a fix on the performances, but the ensemble cast do well with some very tough asks. Lizzy Connolly sings beautifully in a scene that owed a bit to The Rocky Horror Show and a bit to Cabaret and Adrianna Bertola delivers a consistently eerie presence as a range of young girls who made me think of The Shining. And I can't be alone in thanking Cosmo Jarvis for putting aside a hysterical laugh that dialled its irritation factor to 11.
For all that impresses, the production never overcomes the problem of its structure: tension builds but is wilfully dissipated; weirdness establishes itself as the new normal, but is then torn away as another scene carefully constructs its weirdness quotient; empathy grows, but never matures. Perhaps four episodes with an overarching theme would have taken us deep into The Twilight Zone - as it is, we were allowed little more than an occasional peek.
The Twilight Zone continues at the Almeida Theatre until 27 January, 2018
Photo Marc Brenner.