Monday 18 December 2017

The Twilight Zone

Almeida Theatre, London
16th December, 2017, matinee

“We are a country, not a clown car!”

My first visit to the Almeida was to see Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns. I wondered then if there were Almeida regulars in the audience who hadn’t seen an episode of The Simpsons before. Now it was my turn to play the Almeida regular who hadn’t seen an episode of the 1950s’ TV show The Twilight Zone, the focus of Washburn’s latest play.

Washburn’s play, I guess, takes inspiration from several episodes from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson’s TV series by interlacing several storylines and settings into a fractured structure. We open in a stop-off diner, near to the site of an apparent UFO sighting, where six bus passengers have mysteriously turned into seven. The play then moves to an apartment block where a young woman invites a girl in for hot chocolate. But she’s not someone who’s simply wandered off from her home and is soon warning the woman of an imminent murder attempt. We also meet a man in a psychiatrist’s office who fears to go to sleep in case he dies. We meet (or perhaps we don’t?) a couple of pilots who have been reportedly killed in action. We are the audience to a girl’s very impressive ventriloquism act. We also go into the room of a girl who has apparently fallen into another dimension (like what happens to Homer in an iconic episode of The Simpsons). The Twilight Zone may be sinister but it is built on recognisable and seemingly tangible (American) worlds:  suburban houses, roadside diners, and apartment blocks. This is all riveting stuff. In some of storylines, particularly the one about the pilots who at one moment convince us they are alive and real and the next make us question their sanity and state of being, the questioning of what’s what is reminiscent of Pinter. But instead of it having an ominous beat, it’s all quite tongue-in-cheek and is framed within the TV world of melodrama (or whatever genre the TV series was). For example, the worried father exclaims ‘I know a physicist!’ after realising his daughter is missing. At other moments, characters deliver monologues to the audience whilst other characters look at them bemused, wondering who they’re talking to. Moments which induced laughter from elsewhere in the audience (probably people recognising in-jokes or their favourite bits from the TV series) are likely to be part of the desired effect but, for me, they made the show seem unsure of its balance. On what level are they pitching it? Does the play aim to be a celebratory tongue-in-cheek pastiche of a beloved cult classic, or to highlight its undercurrents of social and political urgency? Or both? Or neither? Both of which would also be fine.

It’s presented on Paul Steinberg’s design fronted by a TV screen with the CBS network which opens up to reveal a black box set covered in stars. Panels in the walls open up and figures dressed to match the backdrop come on and do the scene changes, allowing a whimsical method for furniture to fly on and off, for spirals to whirl about and Sci-Fi-esque signs to populate the stage. Washburn’s script and the storylines she borrows are atmospheric and sinister on their own. Richard Jones serves it well, allowing the eeriness of isolated settings and strange characters to slowly build. However, during inter-scene moments where he adds his own style, it feels like he unapologetically wants the play to lose some of its gloss. It’s as if the starry backdrop becomes more obviously ply wood and the costumes more noticeably foam. In doing this, Jones simultaneously embraces a playful theatricality and nods to TV fakery of the 1950s, but perhaps this is at the expense of the production sometimes lacking in atmosphere.

Although it did take a while for me to get into it, and I can’t deny that there was a part of me thinking I should’ve gone to watch Glengarry Glen Ross, I’m glad I persevered. The play’s longest scene is also its best in my opinion. Presented as an uninterrupted and complete story, it perhaps appealed to the traditionalist in me. Sirens are blaring and emergency notices are being broadcast over the radio of a possible alien attack. In the basement of a WASP family home, a married couple and their young daughter are preparing their newly built underground shelter. Having gotten word of the bunker, some neighbours come round to try to get into it as well. What ensues is a panicked and heated argument about race, class, society and politics. The scene feels like a 20th century classic play boiled down to a 15 minute one-act. At its peak, it feels like the Washburn and the company are holding a black mirror up to how the world might end: full of hatred and anger and disagreement. And very real fears about nuclear war are not far behind the thought of an alien invasion. But then the sirens fade and the danger subsides and they all go back to being poker buddies and neighbours mowing each other’s lawns and having BBQs together. Such a (in)conclusion is typically teasing of the play.

Although the play’s overall style may be throw-away and flippant, the cast are all committed as a host of characters. John Marquez, Adriana Bertola, Lizzy Connolly and Matthew Needham (as strong here as he was as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing) particularly stand out. They inhabit the characters and their worlds believably but can also step outside of that realism. Connolly goes from playing a travelling dancer in the diner to a singing cat in a nightmare. Marquez goes from playing the tormented, sleep deprived man to the Droopy-esque wily traveller who has a third arm. And there are numerous moments when they break away from character to deliver some subliminal advertising or political messages that have been dropped into the dialogue in a reference to the golden age of Mad Men style advertising techniques.

Like Mr Burns, the audience have to work hard to keep us with Washburn’s formal brilliance. And like Mr Burns, I feel The Twilight Zone is a memorable bit of theatre that I’ll like more as time goes on.

The Twilight Zone plays somewhere between reality and illusion, consciousness and unconsciousness, the concrete and the intangible, somewhere between Angel and Highbury & Islington tube stations, at the Almeida Theatre until 27th January, 2018.

The company of The Twilight Zone at the Almeida. Credit: Marc Brenner

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