The closest thing you’re going to get to a pantomime at the envelope-pushing Almeida is this wonderfully absurd reimagining of classic TV show The Twilight Zone.
With musical interludes, vaudeville, sleight of hand, and even a soupçon of audience participation, it’s a wildly entertaining show that makes up for its occasional bouts of incoherence with chutzpah and retro-futuristic charm.
The stage, framed by the familiar curves of an old cathode ray TV – is covered with star-scape wallpaper, as if the entire production has been cast into the darkest reaches of outer space. This blankest of canvases shifts and folds into itself, using a door on wheels to bridge the gaps between the eight discreet stories that play out. The sound design, meanwhile, is immaculate, with the ominous strings brilliantly conjuring the spirit of the TV show.
In the first half, familiar vignettes from the series, which aired between 1959-1964, are intercut with each other, creating a surreal montage that’s a little reminiscent of a Haruki Murakami novel.
The second half sticks to a more familiar format, with two main stories playing out, and this is where the production really flexes its dramatic muscles. In one an astronaut accepts a mission that will take him away from his sweetheart for 50 years, setting in motion a devastating chain of events. In another, residents in American suburbia argue about race and entitlement as they scramble for the few available places in a tiny nuclear bomb shelter; it’s a brilliant retelling of the story, taking the classic structure and giving it fresh spin for our times.
Where the production stumbles is in its instinct to lean too heavily into knowing absurdism, tending to give an overt wink to the audience when the material would have stood up by itself. Stage-hands wielding spinning cardboard discs reading “E=mc2” and bearing pictures of eyeballs, for instance, feel heavy-handed, and even a little disrespectful to the source material.
But that’s a relatively small criticism. When the production clicks – which it usually does – it’s an utter joy: unpredictable, laugh-out-loud funny and just a little frightening. During a self-referential finale, in which some – but frustratingly not all – of the plot threads are neatly tied up, we’re treated to a brilliant treatise on the nature of fiction and the human imagination. It’s just what you want from a visit to The Twilight Zone.
First published in City A.M.