Since it first hit our (more smaller, monochrome) screens in the late 1950s, The Twilight Zone has been ever-present in our culture. From The X-Files to The Simpsons, whether you know it or not, you’re familiar with Rod Serling’s anthology.
From an Agatha Christie-style hunt for the alien amongst a bus full of strangers, to a woman mortified by facial correction surgery, his fantastical tales got the nation talking. It was the original Black Mirror. Now, at the Almeida, they’re seen on stage for the first time.
Anne Washburn’s adaptation twirls through eight of these well-known stories, most in the first half. It can seem quite disorientating as you process whether these story arcs, which are broken up intermittently, will meet and link up, while some episodes are told in but a fleeting moment. It exposes you to the weird and wonderful.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the first hour. There’s a lot going on, and some stories don’t quite feel complete and lose the moral endings of the original stories. They would hammer home messages about our standards as a society, but as the stories are broken up and told in-part throughout, they don’t have the same impact.
However, Act Two offers more food for thought. In a high-octane scene as a state of emergency is declared, a man must decide whether to let his neighbours into his nuclear bunker to be saved from impending armageddon. And they must choose who of them is worthy of a place. ‘The Shelter’ provides us with one of the more engaging tales of the evening as it throws up issues from race and slavery to pure mob mentality. When the episode first aired, it garnered 13,000 letters to the network in two days, and it’s bound to be the talking point of the evening.
The play asks you - quite literally, through Serling (John Marquez) addressing the audience - to use your imagination. As you watch the play, Paul Steinberg’s design has you peering onto the stage through an enormous TV set. There isn’t much flashy about Richard Wiseman’s illusions, but they still get a few gasps from the audience. Richard Jones’ busy direction keeps you second guessing at times, and there’s an inkling is suspense, but often this doesn’t manifest into a satisfying payoff. The whole thing is creepily underpinned by Sarah Angliss' score which is wonderfully reminiscent of the music from the original.
It is does feature a great ensemble cast, though, as they all take on several of the bizarre characters from each episode. Lizzy Connolly showcases her brilliant vocal ability as she would normally would in West End musicals during a surreal song in which she plays an imaginary carnival dancer, but it provides a nice change of pace. Oliver Alvin-Wilson and Cosmo Jarvis inject some much needed passion and emotion as they up the ante in The Shelter.
It’s a fitting homage to Serling, a master of the weird and wonderful, and that it certainly is. But Washburn’s adaptation seems to cram a few too many narratives into one play, as it left me yearning to see a few of them padded out into their own production.