• ‘The Twilight Zone’ at the Almeida

    Between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge is a dimension of imagination. An area we call the Twilight Zone.

    - Almeida publicity, based on the television script

    Decades after the last episode was transmitted, the original run of the popular American television series created by Rod Serling and first aired in 1959 on CBS remains a touchstone for short, sharp doses of (un)reality. Combining original scripts with adaptations of literary works, these explorations of the rum and uncanny from the Cold War era can still chime closely with the concerns of the present. How closely can be judged (to an extent, at least) by the Almeida’s theatre’s new presentation.

    As what unfolds – inside a simple, forced-perspective black box spattered with white stars – quickly suggests, multiple episodes were sourced for this energetic production. Stranded in an all-American diner complete with chrome-edged counter, juke box and cap-wearing barman a bus driver and seven of his passengers wait out a storm – but an investigating state trooper notes that only six people actually boarded and, what’s more, something odd has crashed nearby. Outside her apartment door a woman with deeply-buried troubles finds a strange young girl who seems to know a surprising amount about her neighbour. A different girl, who has vanished, is the focus of another woman, as she and her husband become increasingly distressed by their daughter’s empty bedroom and some echoing cries. An astronaut is sent on a fifty-year trip to a newly-discovered galaxy with the benefit of suspended animation to keep him young – as launch time nears, though, he finds he has fallen in love with someone here on earth. Elsewhere acclaim greets three astronauts returning from their own pioneering flight – or are there only two of them? Or one? And a patient and his psychiatrist explore what it means to be too terrified to fall asleep…

    Though not a complete summary – and in truth even this restricted list suggests a slate that is rather too ambitious – it is clear all have a science fiction sensibility. The appearance of three-eyed and –armed aliens confirms that genre in very obvious terms, but for me it was the tales that ground themselves in suggestion, temptation and loss that proved the most attractive. Sam Swainsbury and Franc Ashman underplay convincingly the literally star-crossed lovers doomed never to meet again, helping to bring genuine pathos to the story of the half-century traveller, whilst the perfectly in-period looks, speech patterns and style of John Marquez, a ringer for Henry Goodman or John Slattery, build considerable empathy for the terrified, tired patient scared of dreaming. And there are other subtleties beyond this. Some carefully-observed gestures in the initial diner scene rewarded those happening to look in the right place, and the text include some tight, smart lines where Marquez once again dominates. Thus "I've lost my marbles" he worries; "Marbles can be found", reassures the doctor. "It's a dream", he exclaims when meeting in his mind the Burlesquely sexy Cat Woman: "I know I'm a dream" she replies, knowingly. In the penultimate set piece, in which panicked residents fight over space in a Bomb shelter, one desperate home owner bemoans the lack of a basement in his flashy new pad: it has "every wonder of modern science taken into account...except the one heading right for us."

    There are plenty of incidental pleasures, such as an alien with a heart as big as his head and a bandaged woman who becomes The Ugliest in the World. You won’t look at a cigarette in the same way again, either. Best of all, there is that feline femme fatale. As played - actually, inhabited - by Lizzy Connolly she stunned my audience with a fabulous, Ken Russell-meets-Inception song and dance number that I will for lack of its actual title call Never Be Afraid to Dream.

    The staging eschews the cinematic, multimedia integration common in today’s plays for a hands-on, low-tech approach in which stage hands costumed to match the walls shift props (sometimes still carrying actors) in full view and ‘animate’ scene transition cards. The playing is broad in parts, occasionally directed to the audience, and the tone often sits somewhere between David Lynch and student union camp. For me these wide, not to say wild, variations limited my enjoyment. Those writers of the 1950s and 60s were clearly in touch with the human condition, their prescience aside, but it might have been better to take a more serious view of the material and across fewer threads. Yet it is perhaps the most thoughtful comment of the entire piece that also encapsulates the true intention of adapter and director: imagination, a character observes, is welcomed in children but discouraged in adults.

    Hundreds of years ago Englishman Robert Herrick’s poem Dreams came to a similar conclusion, confirming the power of the unconscious and the freedom that it can produce:

    Here we are all, by day; by night we`re hurled

    By dreams, each one, into a several world.

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    The Twilight Zone, based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, adapted by Anne Washburn and directed by Richard Jones, continues at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until 27 January

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour, collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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