The Twilight Zone

‘There is a sixth dimension beyond that which is known to man... this is the dimension of imagination’ – doodoodoodoo... doodoodoodoo...

Rod Serling’s 1959-64 anthology TV series, The Twilight Zone, is often thought of as a watershed for small- screen science fiction, but in truth it included not just sci-fi but the supernatural, the (mildly 1950s-TV-tolerable) horrific, the blackly humorous and the just generally unexplained. As Serling’s on-screen monologues and the title voiceover quoted make clear, the keynote is imagination. It would seem perfect material for a left-field stage adaptation, then – especially when the adapter, Anne Washburn, came to wider attention with Mr Burns, a play about a post-apocalyptic society where communities bond by retelling a particular episode of The Simpsons. In that play, Washburn used several different forms to show what kind of society existed around each particular version of the story. Here, too, she chops and changes, but this time it’s less successful, because we already know about the societies in question – the Eisenhower/ Kennedy era and our own – and how the stories fit or don’t fit with each of those periods, or the two with each other.

In short, the play has to do a lot more heavy lifting, but it’s styled in a way that actually achieves much less. Washburn has taken eight episodes from the series and not so much interwoven them as stirred bigger and smaller chunks of them together with ‘meta’ sequences. Scenes are changed by figures dressed in greatcoats, blending with the starscape backdrop design, and also in flying helmets and goggles, as if they are our pilots and navigators through the Zone. Now and again they carry or spin across the stage large roundels bearing images from the original title sequence: an eye, an op art pattern, a door. Periodically, one of the 10 actors delivers part of a Serling piece- to-camera, always interrupted or distracted just as they get to the words ‘...the Twilight Zone’.

Washburn and director Richard Jones are trying to have their cake and eat it. Well, at least that’s a familiar attitude in 2017 Britain, but so is the realisation that it can’t be done. You can’t be eerie and lampoon eeriness at the same time, nor mix dated 1950s preoccupations like ‘duck and cover’ nuclear-war paranoia with clunking updates such as a reference to ‘driving while black’. You can’t, I guess, mix the twilight and limelight: the cracks end up showing. Unlike the parallel dimension in one of the stories, this is not a zone that intersects with our own world. It raises smiles and chuckles at its quaintness, but no chills or deeper thoughts.

Until 27 January at the Almeida Theatre, London N1: 020-7359 4404, www.almeida.co.uk 

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