Mark Ludmon reviews the West End transfer of the Almeida Theatre's production of The Twilight Zone now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre London.
The Twilight Zone
Ambassadors Theatre, London
Book Twilight Zone Tickets
Before we had Dark Mirror and Netflix, there was The Twilight Zone. This innovative TV series of one-off dramas, created by Rod Serling and running on the CBS network in the US from 1959 to 1964, inspired numerous sci-fi and horror shows and films (and, thanks to regular repeats on British TV, haunted my childhood). With its stories of aliens, different dimensions and mysterious hostile forces beneath the veneer of middle-class suburban life, it tapped into anxieties in American – and, to some extent, British – society of the time. These are playfully explored in US playwright Anne Washburn’s adaptation of a number of the episodes into an engaging stage show, called The Twilight Show, which played at the Almeida Theatre over Christmas 2017 and has now transferred to the West End with a mostly new cast.
It weaves together stories written by Serling as well as original writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, creating a fragmentary, nightmarish anthology that emphasises the social tensions that informed the TV series but also continue to trouble us today. As one character comments about his own predicament, the show is like a puzzle with the pieces slowly adding up to a picture. At the heart of this vision is fear of “the other”, the alien hiding in plain sight, most noticeably revealed in Washburn’s free adaptation of Serling’s own 1961 episode, The Shelter. Anticipating more recent films and TV shows such as The Walking Dead, it shows a close-knit suburban community swiftly erupting into dissension and violence when faced with a missile attack. Expanding on the original script, the stage version sees the characters challenge each others’ worthiness to hide in a bomb shelter based on how American they are in terms of race and heritage.
Using stagecraft and illusion, director Richard Jones captures the gripping tension of the stories, aided by eerie sound design from Sarah Angliss and Christopher Shutt and unsettling lighting design from Mimi Jordan Sherin and DM Wood. At the same time, it satirises some of the episodes’ more melodramatic elements, as well as Serling’s sententious narrative voiceovers, to comic effect. With a palette of black, white and grey to reflect the pre-colour era of the TV show, Paul Steinberg’s set is inspired by the title imagery of starlit dark skies, giant eyes, swirling vortexes, clocks and, most notably, a white door floating in space. Many of these are pasted on circular boards that are twirled across the stage by the cast – another playful touch that may well baffle anyone unfamiliar with the series. It is matched by Nicky Gillibrand’s monochrome costumes drawing on fashions of the early 1960s and the period’s futuristic predictions of what we would be wearing over 50 years later. The tone, lying in the middle ground between thriller and comedy, is struck perfectly by the excellent ensemble cast, all playing a variety of roles.
After Washburn drew on The Simpsons for her apocalyptic play Mr Burns, The Twilight Zone confirms her fascination with the iconography of pop culture. While highlighting the fears dramatised by the TV show, she not only uncovers some of its unintended humour but, in her choice of stories, attempts to draw out how the power of love can bring light to the shadows. But, with mysterious aliens, a sinister ventriloquist dummy, dangerous inter-dimensional portals and other threats, it is ultimately the dark visions that dominate and delight.