October 2019 will see the 60th birthday of Rod Serling’s seminal TV anthology series The Twilight Zone. Although it only ran for five years, there were still 156 stories in that time, and it’s a concept which has never really gone away, with elements of it having crept into popular culture since its premiere, like the famous four notes of the theme by Marius Constant acting as a form of shorthand for anything weird or spooky.
It very quickly spawned a series of similar rival shows like The Outer Limits, Out Of The Unknown, and Out Of This World. There have also been numerous parodies, spoofs and pop culture references, from The Simpsons to The Drew Carey Show, Third Rock From The Sun, and notably Futurama‘s ‘The Scary Door’. Its influence has lived on in programmes such as Black Mirror, which has often been described as being a Twilight Zone for the modern digital era, with its cautionary tales and morality plays with a twist.
The series itself has also remained with us over the years, with a number of revivals, from the 1983 movie produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis; to a mid-’80s version with the theme performed by the Grateful Dead; a Forest Whitaker-fronted version back at the beginning of the 21st century; and the latest incarnation which has just hit American screens, courtesy of Jordan Peele of Get Out and Us fame, with the former movie being mentioned as having the feel of an extended episode of The Twilight Zone.
There’s even a theme park ride at Disney Studios in Florida, complete with intro by Serling (through clever editing and voice work by an impersonator). 2017 saw The Twilight Zone entering a new dimension still, with a theatrical adaptation turning up at London’s Almeida Theatre, and its sell-out run all-but ensuing that it would return in some form. The Ambassadors Theatre in the West End has welcomed a revival of the play onto its stage, starting last month, bringing with it a few of the original cast, as well as Anne Washburn’s script which adapts a number of episodes from the original TV series.
The play embraces its television roots, with the audience being greeted as they enter the auditorium with a giant screen which is designed to resemble a TV set from the 1950s, complete with authentic period logo for CBS Television network, home of The Twilight Zone. Given the anthology nature of the show, meaning that a number of different stories have been brought together, there isn’t any common location which could really be used, so the creative team have utilised this to their advantage, by using a star-filled backdrop as the setting for events, evoking the show’s title sequence; this means that redressing of the stage is kept to a minimum between scenes, and also helps emphasise the otherworldliness of the play, with the audience doing a lot of work to fill in the visual blanks by using their own mindscape to do so.
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This use of the titles in its minimalistic approach incorporates the floating door – one of the most identifiable images, after Rod Serling – almost as a character in its own right. The opening narration would tell us every week “You unlock this door with the key of imagination“, and that’s exactly what happens here. As part of the scene shifting, the door gets manoeuvred around the stage, becoming the entrance to a diner, then to a little girl’s bedroom, then into (and out of) an apartment, and so on. It’s a great visual motif, reminding us that we’re firmly in the Twilight Zone of the show’s title by visual association.
Actually, the redressing of the stage does require particular mention – the cast are doing the work of stagehands, it appears, by donning space and star-adorned jump suits and hoods, ensuring that they blend in perfectly with the background as they move not just the door, but also props and items of scenery around and off the stage with absolute precision and accuracy. It’s like a carefully choreographed dance, and is utterly spellbinding to watch, as there’s only a limited amount of time in which to get things set up for the next vignette, yet it’s all done in an unrushed and unfussed manner, with an almost machine-like way of resetting the scene. If even something as simple as this proves compelling, then you know you’re onto something special.
Another feature of the set which appears throughout the production – vanishing and reappearing as required, both as a piece of scenery itself, and also a linking narrative device – is a giant replica TV of 1950s vintage, which not only emphasises the play’s original medium, but also helps divert us at some points when the scenery is being moved about, by use of specially pre-recorded material, put together by Century 21, a film and TV production company that’s best known for carrying on the Supermarionation work of Gerry Anderson, having created brand new Thunderbirds episodes using original 1960s audio tracks. It certainly helps to add another dimension to proceedings, and it moves things along beautifully.
The whole styling of the play manages to avoid updating things, keeping it firmly set in the late 1950s, with replica clothing not only of the period itself, but also the look of what a vision of tomorrow from a mid-20th Century perspective imagined it would be, with a story set years ahead of the present day having spacesuits which resemble 1950’s film Destination Moon, along with silver Lamé clothing with an authentically retro ‘futuristic’ vibe to boot. The actual colour palate is muted overall, which seems to be a deliberate move to evoke the monochrome look of the show, and it fits perfectly.
The Twilight Zone is a very immersive experience, and brings spectacle to the stage in a big way. There’s just so much to focus on that misdirection plays a part in keeping the audience wrongfooted, and you just can’t help but be drawn into this world that’s unfolding before you. Magic and illusion is also a key element, and you get to see live acts of prestidigitation and sleight of hand, from pens disappearing in plain sight, to a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes manifesting before you, and a levitating suitcase. My seat was on the front row, and I couldn’t tell how any of this was being done from just a few feet away. Given that none of the actors are (presumably) professional conjurors, this makes it feel all the more accomplished and impressive.
However, another strength is that the play doesn’t rely upon visual spectacle alone, and the variety of material selected to be used here has chosen some outstanding pieces of writing, which shows just how strong the original source material is, as well as how well it stands up now. Some of it has required some adaptation, but it’s done seamlessly by Anne Washburn. You don’t need to be familiar with the original episodes to enjoy the play, and it’s good to see that some of the less well-known tales have been picked. It’s no mean feat to tie together stories with disparate settings and topics, yet make them all easily flow from one to the other, and back again (as well as having them start to bleed into each other at various points), so all due credit goes to Washburn for this.
One of the adapted stories – ‘The Shelter’ – has at its core a very current and relevant theme, showing a very ugly xenophobia at the heart of the American Dream. It gives us a microcosm where a diverse mix of friends and neighbours all turn on each other as they’re desperate to get into a nuclear shelter minutes before what they fear will be a lethal attack. Washburn has tweaked the original writing to alter the ethnicity of some characters in order to emphasise the impact, by showing open racism. When this starts to unfold, it’s a truly shocking and horrifying moment, yet the play doesn’t pull back from this, and it’s a massive gut punch which is well – and meaningfully – delivered. As with the tradition of some classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, it seems people are sometimes the real monsters. Powerful writing, powerfully delivered.
The ensemble cast are particularly strong here, having to cope not only with having to play a multitude of characters between them, but also some very quick costume and makeup changes between scenes, which are done at a breathtaking pace. So consistent are they that it’s hard to single anyone out for particular praise, but credit should go to Adrianna Bertola, who manages to electrify every scene that she’s in, and whose performances come from a real place of truth, it seems, which is remarkable given her relative youth. Mention should also be made of Natasha J Barnes, who is captivating as a nightmare chanteuse during a surreal song & dance sequence, and has a stunning voice.
The play delights itself on confounding our expectations, and particularly for its intentionally delayed gratification – you keep having characters monologuing to the audience in best Serling style, only to be cut off mid-flow just as they’re about to use the name of the programme, which is a nice conceit. We also have a protracted wait to have the famous theme appear, and even then it’s in a most unexpected way. And what would The Twilight Zone be without its famous narrator? Well, as with all things in this production, you don’t get what you’ve bargained for, and things all start getting a bit meta, as we build towards our climax and wait for our Serling moment.
Everything is so carefully thought through here, with so much attention to detail, even down the the programme – usually, these tend to be very expendable, take-them-or-leave-them affairs, but with The Twilight Zone, we have essays by Neil Gaiman, and Dick Fiddy of the BFI. The programme actually becomes something which enhances the whole theatregoing experience in a way which doesn’t usually happen. If you only have one visit to the theatre this year, make sure you go to see this: beg, steal or borrow if you have to, but don’t miss out on what is an utterly electrifying and compelling thrill ride. Leave reality at the door sort, and step into The Twilight Zone.
Your next stop: The Ambassadors Theatre.
The Twilight Zone is currently at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, until 1st June 2019.