Review: The Twilight Zone at Almeida Theatre
The time… between 1997 and 2003.
The place… Deschutes County, Oregon.
It was there that a young girl named Hailey Bachrach learned some of the important lessons of life, like how to replace a roll of toilet paper, and that rum cake is soaked in actual rum. It is also where Miss Bachrach first entered…. The Twilight Zone.
And yet, the Twilight Zone is not a zone like those you may have encountered in your everyday life—zones bounded by rules of space, or perhaps of time. And so while for Miss Bachrach, the Twilight Zone was firmly rooted in a particular period of her childhood, and specifically in those holiday weeks passed in Deschutes County Oregon, the Twilight Zone can simultaneously exist here—now—in London, England at the Almeida Theatre.
The Twilight Zone, adapted for the stage by American playwright Anne Washburn, is absolutely iconic in the United States. The doodly-doodly theme music, the swirling shapes and floating mathematical equations, faithfully replicated as scenic transitions, are instantly recognisable to me. But it doesn’t seem to have the same status in England, which may render Washburn’s adaptation opaque when it gets most self-referential. As someone who grew up with the series, each cheeky Easter egg was a delight; I’m not sure how much sense things like a running bit with an omnipresent cigarette make without this background knowledge.
But then again, The Twilight Zone is all about mystery. Like the original show, the play consists of short, separate storylines adapted from actual episodes. But where each episode of the series was dedicated to a single story, Washburn weaves and blends them together, dipping in and out from one storyline to another. The show is an obvious direct ancestor of Black Mirror, but one that reflects the anxieties of its original era, the late 1950s to 1960s: in the play, only one storyline directly invokes a nuclear threat, but the uneasy relationship with science, with other people, with the potential horrors that lurk within the human imagination, all scream post-nuclear world. And it turns out that’s a world that feels more familiar today than I think any of us would like. Rather than coming off as too retro to be relatable, in fact it’s nice to have these very present anxieties stripped down to something basic, without iPhones or social media to shoulder the blame for fears that really lurk much deeper in the human heart.
Nicky Gillibrand’s greyscale costumes and Paul Steinberg’s starfield set (also very familiar to Twilight Zone fans), moved by the actors wearing matching starry trench coats and goggles, create a fitting backdrop for the creepy-camp aesthetic. It's both heightened and naturalistic, familiar and unsettling. Director Richard Jones trots out a series of clever low-tech tricks to manage the stories’ most shocking moments, and they’re a delight every time. An excellent company of ten hop from role to role, creating further disorientation as the stories draw closer and closer together, and characters seem to hop the boundaries between them—or do they?
The show insistently refuses to provide clear answers, and this means that any confusion resulting from lack of familiarity with the source material probably doesn’t matter. There are endless, intentional gaps left open, threads left hanging, and while knowledge of the TV show fills in some of them, many are spaces Washburn intends for your imagination to fill. Imagination is the heart of the show, the idea that the loosely-linked stories cluster around. It’s the space that the highly cinematic Twilight Zone and the theatre itself share.
Despite being an intensely cowardly child (and adult, for that matter), I’m not exactly surprised that I found The Twilight Zone captivating: within its paranoia is a sense of endless possibility. Something horrible might be lurking in the darkness of your bedroom, but that means that there really is something more out there. The Almeida’s production—the kind of show where the audience instantly bursts into a buzz of delight as soon as the interval begins—captures this essential spirit. Welcome to… oh, you’ll see.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner