Almeida Theatre Winter 2017-2018; Ambassadors Theatre Spring 2019
This misconceived and mismanaged production falls short on so many levels that you might sometimes suspect deliberate self-sabotage. Somewhere there may exist the possibility of a successful stage adaptation of Rod Serling's TV scripts, but this isn't it.
The Twilight Zone was an American TV series that originally ran 1959-1965, a drama anthology of half-hour (for a brief period one-hour) stories with an eerie or ironic tone.
It was hosted and largely written by Rod Serling, who had a penchant for twist endings revealed in the very final shot. For example – neither of these is in the stage version, so there's no spoiler alert – the one about the two astronauts who crash on a desert planet and fight to the death over the last tank of oxygen, only for the survivor to climb a sand dune and discover he's just outside Las Vegas.
Or the mousy little man not at all displeased to find himself the last human alive because he'll now have the peace and quiet to read all his books, only to break his glasses.
Adaptor Anne Washburn has condensed eight Twilight Zone scripts, almost all by Serling, into just over two hours plus interval.
There's the one about an alien who chooses a roadside diner to begin his invasion, the ghostly little girl who saves her adult self from a killer, the neighbours who fight over a bomb shelter when they think the missiles are coming, and so on.
But instead of presenting them straight, Washburn has cut them all up and shuffled the pages, so that we jump back and forth among them.
This creates continuity problems – I'm pretty sure that at least two of the stories (the disappearing astronauts and the living dummy) are never resolved, while Washburn shows us only the final twist moment of another (the plastic surgery), leaving us to deduce or, if we're old enough, remember the set-up.
But even worse, the mash-up denies every story the opportunity to create and sustain the eerie or ironic tone essential to their effect.
Cut up, the alien-in-the-diner story seems to be going off in several different directions before it finally finds its focus, and the man-afraid-of-his-dreams story keeps shifting tones, at one point slipping into a really bad dance sequence.
Compounding the undercutting of the very quality that made The Twilight Zone work – the establishment of briefly believable alternative realities – adaptor Washburn and director Richard Jones make the fatal mistake of betraying their lack of respect for the material, overlaying everything with campy self-reflexive and generally not at all funny in-jokes.
Images from the TV series's title sequence – spirals, floating doors and the like – are carried across the stage to cover set changes, the tacky no-tech effect apparently deliberate. Repeatedly the characters in a scene will be startled to have one of them turn abruptly into Serling making his show-closing comments, in a gag that is a little funny the first time.
And Washburn and Jones evidently find the fact that Serling smoked on camera inherently hilarious, because another quickly-diminishing running gag has characters in mid-scene startled to find cigarettes magically and incongruously in their hands.
Does anything survive this mistreatment? The disappearing astronauts story is genuinely eerie, though we never see how it turns out, and another about an astronaut and his girlfriend making sweetly ironic sacrifices for each other recalls (and was undoubtedly inspired by) O. Henry's 'The Gift Of The Magi'.
A hard-working cast, doubling and quadrupling roles, do as they're told. But really, if the creators of this stage production had deliberately set out to undercut everything that made The Twilight Zone special, they could hardly have done much more.
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Review - The Twilight Zone - Almeida Theatre 2017