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The Twilight Zone Oliver Alvin Wilson in The Twilight Zone. Photo by Marc Brenner

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The Twilight Zone
Ambassadors Theatre
until June 1, 2019
Based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson
Adapted by Anne Washburn
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Published on March 11, 2019
www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk

Rod Serling's CBS anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64) was a proper cult phenomenon. It combined fantasy, sci-fi, suspense, horror and psychological thriller and always concluded with a macabre ending usually laced with a moral lesson. It was perfect fare for an America spooked by Cuban Missile Crisis paranoia and daily news stories about UFO sightings.

The central challenge Anne Washburn has in adapting it to the screen is that apart from that iconic 'Dee dee dee dee' tune and Rod solemnly intoning "you have entered a world in which the impossible has just become possible" it's hard to understand what resonance it has for today's audiences. Here it is known, but not really that familiar, apart from those of a certain age who wallowed it in their teens or today's younger generations glued to Sci-Fi channel or nostalgia buffs. All were present and correct in the audience.

What was once considered spooky will now often raise a giggle and neither does ironic detachment sit well with sci-fi, generally they're polar opposites. Finding the right tone for this material is a big task therefore and they don't pull it off here.

Part of the problem is they have put about half a dozen of the stories into a pick n mix so we get (almost) full stories, some snippets and some of them even cross-pollinate, adding to the confusion. It becomes a sort of Twilight Zone mash up for the fans and as drama it doesn't work because there's no pay off or emotional connection.

It starts with one of the best episodes about a group of stranded bus passengers who may have an alien in their midst. Allegory with a capital A. Another concerns an attempt to rescue a girl who has fallen through a fourth dimension portal in her bedroom.

The story, given most time and which therefore has most impact, concerns the tensions which explode among a group of suburban families when, faced with an impending nuclear Armageddon or alien invasion, they decide to gatecrash the sensible neighbour's fallout shelter after he's refused to save them. There's no more room. This has tension and drama but it also chides us into reflecting on the need for collective tolerance about race – the black couple and the 'foreigner' get it for not being 'one of us'.

As you'd expect from any production directed by Richard Jones the visuals and production values will be stunning and here Paul Steinberg and Nicki Gillibrand's monochrome designs are lush. The costumes oddly combine both the elegant and the ill-fitting, reflecting the uneasy tone of the piece and the sound design and use of some of the great original scoring is also spot-on.

It's curious how Sci-fi has never really had a place in contemporary theater, which is generally too dominated by realism ('serious plays') or the fantasy escape of most musicals. It's an omission clever producers will no doubt latch on to as the Sci Fi fans get older and more affluent.

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