2019 marks 60 years since the first broadcast of the TV show The Twilight Zone. Having moved through many different forms of media, it was perhaps inevitable that a theatrical version would be produced. This staging is the West End transfer of the UK production initially staged at The Almeida, an off-West End venue known for quirky adaptations that attract a lot of positive attention. Staged now in the compact Ambassadors Theatre, the small auditorium creates the feeling of being part of an intimate experience. The production however is something of a curate’s egg.
There is much to like here - the aesthetics are beautifully crafted; set designer Paul Steinberg has created a claustrophobic yet flexible set in which Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes ‘pop’ in all their monochrome glory. The deliberate invocation of a black and white era reminds us that we are here to watch a piece of nostalgia which isn’t ever taking itself too seriously.
There are some clever touches - the cast have all been trained in sleight of hand, leading to a lovely running joke with a cigarette, which never quite receives the payoff it deserves, the joke wasting away in what felt like a crowbarred commentary on modern health and safety legislation. There are also some seriously scary stage hands, dressed in star-dripped camouflage so convincing that we completely failed to notice one of them standing in the corner of the stage whilst a scene occurred in front of them. Those stage hands also help to create the nostalgia, handling rotating circles with all the classic iconography of the TV show depicted on them - swirling circles, isolated eyeballs and menacing doors are all present and correct. The eerie tone of 1950’s paranoia of ‘reds under the bed’ and fear of ‘the other’ is also ever present.
But in trying to invoke so much of the spirit of the show, the overall production is somewhat disjointed. A total of eight stories are included here, with their narratives generally woven through the show, until the later part of the second act, when two substantial stories receive a more linear dissemination. With so many plots to juggle, many of them feel unresolved. The first story, of trying to identify the alien in a group of bus passengers at a diner, lacks pace, making the opening feel far too slow and lacklustre. Indeed, the whole show feels like more of an experience than a theatre production - as if someone is repeatedly changing the channels on your TV, switching every time you realise what you’re watching and what point the narrative has reached. This show feels like it had a lot of potential that remains unrealised. In focusing on including all the tropes of the TV show, it feels like a coherent narrative was overlooked - whilst telling every story in a linear structure would have quickly become tiresome, a little more consideration given to the best way in which to use the framing device of the TV set could have led to a more satisfactory theatrical experience.
The Twilight Zone continues at The Ambassadors Theatre, London, until June 1st, 2019.