Everyone remembers that distinctive off-kilter pattern of notes. You’ve probably hummed them when something strange happens. That oscillating tinkle has become a shorthand for weirdness, almost floating free of its origin as a TV theme tune – it’s unmistakably a sign that you’re entering The Twilight Zone.
In her new play, American writer Anne Washburn adapts eight episodes from the iconic American sci-fi anthology TV series, which ran from 1959 to 1963. Its stories spanned everything from the uncanny in the everyday to far-future space flights, invariably ending with a twist in the tale.
The first half is a kaleidoscope of fragments. Washburn collapses episodes together so they interrupt each other. Their specific allegories blur to evoke the fearful atomic age they were born into. The cumulative effect is a sense of unease and unknowing, of memory loss and the limits of understanding.
Richard Jones’ production is also very funny. It plays out against Paul Steinberg’s space-black, star-covered set, with the cast wheeling out cardboard cut-outs of giant eyeballs and equations in lo-fi recreation of The Twilight Zone’s famous opening sequence. This isn’t a show just for fans, but it definitely acknowledges them.
It’s a loving pastiche, fully alert to the swirl of cultural inheritances that come with the show and its era. From the exaggerated 1950s hairstyles to the emphatic delivery and almost monochrome appearance of the cast, this production leans cleverly into nostalgia – it’s a broadcast from an analogue netherworld.
In scenes from Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, John Marquez’s disguised alien is haughty and flamboyant, ‘not like’ the other men. This is a mythic modern America, stiff-jawed and paranoid about infiltration by the ultimate foreigners, beings from another planet, wrapped up in a celluloid aesthetic.
If the first act was the set-up, a world on edge, the second is a bitter punchline. Things slow down after the interval. The ugly racism that explodes in an uninterrupted re-telling of The Shelter feels horribly familiar today. The cast shift gear effortlessly from winking to high stakes.
Washburn’s last play at the Almeida, Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play, wove long-running animated TV comedy The Simpsons into a dystopian future devoid of electricity. Its episodes and characters became myths, storytelling transmitted by generations. Popular culture was as foundational as traditional religions.
Mr Burns proved critically divisive and some people might be sniffy about the ‘niche appeal’ of this production, too. They will be wrong. The Twilight Zone is a playfully great piece of theatre about the power of imagination: about how people use storytelling, particularly science fiction, to navigate new frontiers and question society. There’s a good reason that theme tune lingers.