Owing to circumstances of age and birthplace, I expect I was a fan of – perhaps addicted to – the American TV series of the late-1950s to early 1960s, The Twilight Zone. At this week’s première at the Almeida Theatre of Anne Washburn’s mash-up adaptation of eight episodes of this sci-fi schlock-horror entertainment, I think I did – just – recognise the theme tune. Much as I enjoyed the weird and wonderful (slightly too long) evening, though, the best thing about it was its sound track by Sarah Angliss, Christopher Shutt and Stephen Bentley-Klein. It’s a score in which you suspect every note has been played on a synthesiser, but which contains eerie aural surprises via the vibraphone, and a few that make you jump out of your skin. Bernard Herrmann wrote the theme, and the series employed other great composers, from Jerry Goldsmith to Franz Waxman, and Marius Constant who (says Michael Giacchino’s programme note) created the “jolting atonal stabs…[and] somehow found a way to create a mystical wormhole into another dimension.” Mind you, the drama was directed by Richard Jones, and I will go almost anywhere, almost anytime, to see one of his productions. (Nearly alone among critics, I cherish his production of Wagner’s Ring cycle – and count it among the best of the large number I have seen.)
Set designer Paul Steinberg configures the Almeida stage as a huge TV screen – a frame so large that I feared I shouldn’t be able to take it all in from my seat in the middle of row A. But I was wrong, as, after the initial scene in a diner, the entire space becomes a starry night-time sky, and costume designer, Nicky Gillibrand, clothes the supernumeraries (and sometimes members of the cast conscripted as temporary scene-shifters) in head-to-toe starry-sky costume, so that, when leaning against any of the three walls, they virtually disappear. We’re back in the era when TV was exclusively sometimes elegantly, black-and-white, and the colour comes chiefly from Gilibrand’s other costumes, with which she hits the 1950s fashion-nail dead on the head. That I remember – it was the clobber of my American adolescence.
Rod Serling wrote most of the stories for the long-running TV series, which amounted to some-odd hundred, and most of the eight that are interwoven into this staged evening, though Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont also get writing credits. Many of these involve the characters disappearing into the twilight zone – either the fourth or the fifth dimension (probably the latter, as we’re so blasé about “time” being the fourth dimension, that our imaginations need to be strained just that little bit more to have any dramatic effect). I particularly savoured the plot-line in which a little girl disappears into 5-D, and is returned to our 3-D world by holding on to the collar of her dog, Max, who has followed her into the alternative universe. Now that our elementary (and probably inaccurate) knowledge of quantum physics acquaints us all with the idea of many possible universes, we really ought to be a better audience for these tales than was the live-TV audience of 1959-1964. However, it remains difficult to translate these effects and play them in the real time of theatre.
The simply wonderful cast of ten, doubling, trebling and even quadrupling their roles, eases the problem a bit, with a repeated cigarette conjuring trick that functions like a Wagnerian Leitmotif, because it evokes bafflement and anxiety with each appearance. The stagecraft quotient is high, and its quality superb, including the newspaper that magically changes its banner headline and photograph. One of the best turns is the whiskey-fuelled ventriloquist’s dummy, and I have to single out Adrianna Bertola, who not only convinces you that she is the little-girl ventriloquist in control, but changes herself radically into another couple of little girl roles. In the TV series, Serling often had a male actor break the fourth wall and deliver a pompous commentary on what his goggle-box audience had just seen. Washburn and Jones have decided to keep this feature, and it falls heavily on the head of John Marquez to deliver it. Annoyed by it at first, I began to look forward to the sermonising, and relished its returns.
The second half consists chiefly of a civic drama around the use of a private bomb-shelter. It aired around the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1961, and drew on the inherently dramatic situation of the doctor’s family who owns – and lock themselves into – the only shelter in the particularly friendly neighbourhood. The neighbours end up fighting among themselves about who should share the severely limited space of the shelter. This gives the cast its best plot and dialogue, as it allows the discussion of most of the pressing issues of political philosophy from Plato to Rawls. There is an anachronistic reference to “TGI Friday” that makes you very aware that the conceit behind this play-let is Donald Trump’s (genuinely) insane policy about immigration and feelings about race – not to mention the nuclear threat posed by his Big Feud with Little Rocket Man. This was so different from the tone, and appearance, of the first half of the evening that, though it delighted (me and) the audience, I had the feeling that it was slightly a diversion, there to keep us from wondering when the loose ends of at least five of the other seven stories were going to be tied up.
If the evening didn’t make me feel fifteen again, it appealed strongly to that part of, even the elderly consciousness, that needs novelty and loves the buzz of being given a fright. OK, it’s as camp as a troop of Girl Scouts selling cookies, but the recipe remains delicious.