Sunday 17 March 2019

Twilight Zone — the Play, by Washburn, Matheson, Beaumont & Serling

Created by Rod Serling, the original Twilight Zone TV series (1958-64) is an all-time favourite of mine. Serling wrote the bulk of the episodes, but there were also substantial and memorable contributions by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, among others.

In 2017 the Almeida Theatre in north London created a stage production based on the series. It attracted a lot of attention and I regretted missing it, especially after an intriguing review in New Scientist.

So I was delighted when the show proved successful enough to launch a new production at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End, just around the corner from where Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap has been playing for 60 years or so.

I hastened along to see the play — which runs until June 2019 — and it was a knockout. It's written by American playwright Anne Washburn and it makes the very smart move of being sturdily based on a selection of original episodes — by Serling, Beaumont and Matheson. 

(Incidentally Richard Matheson is a particular writing hero of mine. He created classics such as The Shrinking Man and I am Legend.)

The play also has the good sense to make use of some of the fine original music for the TV series, including themes by Bernard Herrmann.

But despite having its roots firmly planted in the original, Washburn's stage version of The Twilight Zone is full of surprises. 

For a start I expected it to be a fairly straight adaptation of a series of stories from the show. 
But instead of presenting these stories in a linear fashion it chops them up and intermingles them, moving from one to another with strikingly surreal transitions

It's also very funny — there's a great running gag about how Rod Serling (who appeared onscreen to introduce the TV show) always had a cigarette in his hand.

And it's just plain wild, featuring stage magic, illusion and a song and dance sequence which is like David Lynch meets The Simpsons. (Interestingly, one of Anne Washburn's other plays is Mr Burns, inspired by The Simpsons.)

The assorted stories are variable (I felt Matheson's Little Girl Lost could have had a more chilling impact), but the cumulative effect is one of exhilaration, and great affection, for the show.

The play does have one flaw though — at two hours and twenty minutes, it goes on a little too long. And at one point in particular I found my attention straying.

This was during a segment based on Sterling's story The Shelter, which concerns a family with a fallout shelter, to protect them in event of a nuclear attack. When the sirens go, they lock themselves in and refuse admission to their neighbours...

While you could argue this sequences carries a powerful social message — and it unequivocally provides the fine cast with an opportunity to display the calibre of their acting — it feels out of place here. 

It lacks any supernatural or science fiction element. It's conventional, mundane and earthbound. And its endpoint is never in doubt. It also goes on far too long and it's too obvious.

Nor is it deeply connected with any of the other stories in the otherwise complex intertwining of the narrative structure. So the play could lose this segment without any damage.

And I feel cutting it would turn what is already a wonderful evening at the theatre into something like a masterpiece. 

(Other opinions are available — the New Scientist thought The Shelter was the best part of the play.)

But never mind any of that. As it stands, The Twilight Zone is a glorious experience. And if you're in London in the next few months you should try and get a ticket.

(Image credits: I have scanned a flyer I obtained at the theatre the night I attended, plus the rather cool script book I purchased there. The colour photos are sourced from the Almeida wesbsite.)

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