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Posts Tagged ‘Rod Serling’

It is, I am reliably informed, just about Christmas, and therefore possibly a good time to do something different. Now, as regular visitors will be aware, I do spend most of my time hereabouts talking about new films and (most commonly) genre movies from the past, interspersed with occasional musings about musty old cult TV series from the sixties and seventies. But for once, let us go boldly into new territory and take a look at a brand spanking new theatrical production, which recently had its world premiere in London (based on a musty old cult TV series from the sixties – you shouldn’t overdo the novelty thing).

Yes, it is a stage version of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. I suppose it is just possible that you may be reading this and not aware of exactly what The Twilight Zone is, or was: it was an anthology TV show that ran for five seasons from 1959, primarily consisting of fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories, mainly from the pens of Serling himself (92 episodes), Richard Matheson (16 episodes) and Charles Beaumont (about 20 episodes – there is a degree of ghostwriting involved). Although it obviously predated Star Trek by a good half-decade, the intention of Serling matches that of Gene Roddenberry with striking closeness – Serling wanted to write about serious contemporary and philosophical issues, but the network were skittish, and his solution was to disguise his subject matter in the trappings of fantasy.

The question, of course, is why do a stage version of The Twilight Zone now, in 2017, and in Britain? The show itself is the most quintessential piece of post-war Americana imaginable. The answer, I suspect, is simply that The Twilight Zone has come to permeate popular culture to a degree where everyone is on some level familiar with it, even if they’re not aware of that fact – everyone recognises the doo-de-doo-doo-doo-de-doo-doo theme tune, not to mention Serling’s own inimitable style of narration. And the most famous of its stories have almost become folklore, thanks to endless parodies, homages, and remakes.

In a sense this is almost a problem, because so many of the original stories’ ingenious twist endings are now their best-known features. I suspect one of the reasons why the various attempts to revive The Twilight Zone never really took off (there was a revival in the eighties, another in the early noughties, and another new version, to be overseen by Jordan Peele – presumably on the strength of Get Out – was announced earlier this month) is that every single new episode was compared to the greatest triumphs of the Serling version, as opposed to the mid-table episodes, of which there are a fair few.

I’ve no idea how many of the audience at the Almeida in Islington were familiar with the TV show, but it was a good turnout, with many people bringing their kids from the look of things. Will this result in a spike in DVD sales of the TV show in north London? I’ve no idea.

So, you may be wondering: how do you adapt 156 episodes of black and white 1960s TV into a two-hour stage show? Adaptorial duties have been done by Anne Washburn, who has wisely chosen to pick eight or so of the original scripts and rework them for the stage, with a cast of about a dozen playing various roles.

Things get going with a truncated version of Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, setting a rather drolly comic tone which persists for most of the first half, at least. This rolls on into similarly cut-down retellings of Nightmare as a Child, Little Girl Lost, Perchance to Dream, and a not just cut-down but seemingly cut-up take on And When the Sky was Opened. The results are impressionistic more than anything else, giving a vague sense of the original stories and the unsettlingly unpredictable world in which the series specialised.

There’s more of the same in the second half, although it seemed to me the tone darkens as the play continues: with two of the stories concluded, their places are taken by versions of The Long¬†Morrow and The Shelter, along with – I assume, not having reached the episodes in question yet in my own viewing of the TV series – uncredited elements from either The Dummy or Caesar and Me. There’s also an oblique gag based on To Serve Man (not sure how many people got that), and the central conceit of Eye of the Beholder is also incorporated as a kind of silent ballet, threaded through the production.

 

It is, as I say, more of an impressionistic homage to the look and style of The Twilight Zone, for whatever that’s worth. One of the great strengths of the show was Serling’s willingness to completely change the tone of the series from episode to episode – a really quite dark drama like Back There is followed by an absurd comedy, The Whole Truth, for instance¬†– and one result of Washburn’s cut-up approach is that everything ends up feeling tonally quite similar. Naturally, this means the dramatic stories suffer more than the comedic ones, although the heart of the second half is a lengthy excerpt from The Shelter, in which the fault-lines of ethnicity and religion running through American society are ripped open by a crisis. You can see just why a writer in 2017 would zero in on this particular script (written in 1961) as still having something to say.

Mostly, though, this is a knowing version of The Twilight Zone intended to generate laughs rather than anxiety – the insertion of a musical number (stormingly performed by Lizzy Connolly) into Perchance to Dream just emphasises this. There’s also much fun had with the presence, or absence, of Rod Serling as narrator: as the show progresses, various characters find themselves possessed by the spirit of Serling, addressing the audience in that teeth-gritted manner, unable to stop themselves from producing cigarettes, seemingly out of thin air. There’s a similar gag concerning the title of the series, which people are endlessly stopped from saying, although the famous Marius Constant theme music is deployed less effectively than I would have expected.

In the end it is an engaging couple of hours, although perhaps lacking somewhat in heft and seriousness compared to the TV show at its best. My suspicion is that anyone more than passingly familiar with the original episodes will find it a little frivolous; others will probably enjoy themselves but wonder exactly what the fuss is about when it comes to the TV show. I would say it was a tribute to or parody of The Twilight Zone more than an actual adaptation, but an inventive, entertaining, and well-mounted one.

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