The Twilight Zone at The Almeida

Review: The Twilight Zone (Almeida Theatre)

The Twilight Zone is one of the most famous shows in US TV history. Although not quite the original US ‘anthology show’ – indeed, it started off as an episode of precursor CBS anthology show The Desilu Playhouse – it is the best known.

A science-fiction, fantasy, psychological-supernatural horror anthology show created by Rod Serling, it ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. Each standalone episode depicted characters dealing with paranormal, futuristic, Kafka-esque, or otherwise disturbing or unusual events that are said to have taken place in ‘The Twilight Zone’.

Famously, of course, each story typically featured a moral or surprise ending. I say famously, but there are few people who could probably tell you even one of those endings without prompting, since it’s one of those shows that’s famous without many people actually having seen any episodes of it – or of its numerous remakes, of which a new one is being developed even as I type.

At a push, people might remember its later theme tune and title sequence:

They’ll have forgotten the original one completely, mind.

They might also remember creator Rod Serling’s frequent on-screen introductions and conclusions to episodes.

But individual episodes? Not so much.

For the most part, The Twilight Zone has entered the realm of the meme – a shorthand for the weird and unexplainable, and stories with weird aliens and stings in their tails. Although, to be honest, that’s more The Outer Limits people are thinking of. Indeed, you can reduce the ‘stings’ of all 156 episodes down to just 10 minutes if you try really hard.

Adapting The Twilight Zone for the stage

Which makes adapting it for the stage, as The Almeida Theatre in North London has done, potentially both easy and hard. Easy, because if no one can remember the episodes, no one’s going to be fussed if you either simply stage one as written or divert from it and change it in some way; hard, because you’ve little to latch onto.

Indeed, the question is what you’re actually going to adapt. Director Tom Brennan explains some of the technical issues:

So the TV show was like a kind of theatre, and in turn the theatre show is based on TV. It’s a strange transference of forms. There are certainly many questions that arise when thinking about the legacy of the show and its new manifestation on stage.

  • How do you do a pre-commercial break cliff-hanger onstage?
  • How do you create a high-concept perspective twist with no camera?
  • What is the best form for building tension?
  • What is the best form for creating a sense of the paranoid, the mysterious, the genuinely strange?

But at a more basic level, even if you think of each episode as a play, it’s still a play that’s only 50 minutes long and that relies on filmic rather than theatrical techniques for the most part. And which can be pastiched as a mere twist.

John Landis and others showed us one way of doing it back in 1983 with The Twilight Zone: The Movie. That simply took three classic episodes of the show, added in a new one, and then created ‘bookend’ scenes around them.

What does writer Anne Washburn do at The Almeida? Well, let’s just say not only is a bit different to that, it’s also a bit more North London.

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What have you been watching? Including The Arrangement, Midnight Sun, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.

After last week’s Marvel’s Iron Fist (Netflix) and Snatch (US: Crackle) action, with only a verdict on Making History (US: Fox) for a bit of variety, I’ve had time to play catch-up with my viewing. After the jump, I’ll be talking about the latest episodes of The Americans, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, The Good Fight, Imposters, Legion and The Magicians.

But that’s not all. We’re nearly up to date (shucks) with Westworld now, but I’ll save my comments to next week, when there’s a good chance we might have finished it by then. I also should have reviews of Shots Fired (US: Fox) and Nobodies (US: TV Land) up this week, as well as possibly Amazon’s first German-language show You Are Wanted.

On top of that, I’ve even been to the theatre and watched quite a few episodes of some new shows that I don’t have time to review in full:

The Arrangement (US: E!)
E!’s choice for its first venture into scripted television was slightest unwise: The Royals, a slightest farcical, hugely unfunny piece about the British royal family. The Arrangement is a slightly wiser pick that plays to E!’s core competencies: salaciousness and celebrity.

A thinly veiled allusion to… (hey libel lawyers – can I say who? No. Oh. Okay…) a certain celebrity couple, it sees Christine Evangelista (Lucky 7) playing a smart but careerless young actress. One day, she attracts the attention of superstar actor Josh Henderson (Desperate Housewives, Dallas) at an audition for his new movie and before you know it, he’s whisking her off in his private jet to buy islands.

However, looking after Henderson’s career are producer Lexa Doig (Arrow, Andromeda, Continuum) and Michael Vartan (Alias), the proprietor of a self-help institute that has rather a few similarities to Scientology. Before Evangelista’s even on her second date, they’re getting her to sign a $10m marriage contract that plots out the two love-birds’ relationship, including pretty much every aspect of what Evangelista can and can’t do with her life. Should she sign it, become world famous as Henderson’s wife and kick start her career in his movie? Or is the creepy weirdness of it too off-putting?

The show is actually surprisingly credible and even a bit of slow burn, clearly intent on showing how an actress and definitely not a specific one who’s smart and talented and who raps about Shakespeare in her spare time could walk eyes-open into a relationship with a charming actor who’s still famously a nut-job, in preference to waiting tables and dealing with her two-timing beau.

The first episode is quite a delightful little romance in its own right, as Evangelista and Henderson ‘click’, have a whirlwind romance and then have a lot of basic-cable sex in Venice and Mexico. It’s not perfect – I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be laughing when Evangelista excels at her audition by crying through lines like “I got close to you so that I could devise the perfect plan to kill you”, after which Henderson chases after her to say “That’s what acting is supposed to be” in a way supposed to indicate how deep he is – but it was quite sweet, quite fun and it felt like a certain degree of E!’s collective knowledge about celebrity lifestyles had gone into it.

It’s over the course of the next couple of episodes that the show becomes a bit more mundane and darker, as we see Henderson punching out photographers who come after Evangelista and Vartan getting heavies seemingly to take out ex-girlfriends of Henderson. The third episode feels less about the ongoing themes and more about “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of money. Oh no! People might sell old photographs of me for money now I’m famous!” There’s still a degree of smartness to proceedings, including time jumps in the narrative, and the leads are all still firing on all four cylinders, but it’s less fun than it was when it started.

Whether the show will become simply a modern-day Cinderella, with Henderson throwing off Vartan the Wicked Stepmother in favour of true love, or whether it’ll all end in divorce, murder investigations and recriminations, isn’t clear at this point. But there are enough hints that it’s not going to be all ball gowns and coaches that it might well be worth sticking with.

Barrometer rating: 3

Midnattssol/Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) (France: Canal+; Sweden: SVT; UK: Sky Atlantic)
A curious bit of Nordic Noir that feels like SVT (Sweden) wished it could have more episodes of Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Canal+ (France) wished it could have more episodes of The Tunnel (Tunnel), so the two of them sat down together to create a weird French/Swedish/English hybrid of the two. Midnattssol/Jour Polaire (Midnight Sun) sees a bizarre murder involving a French national take place in rural Sweden. Lead investigator Peter Stormare (Swedish Dicks, Fargo, Prison Break) asks the French police for their help and they send Leïla Bekhti (Paris je t’aime, A Prophet). But soon it turns out that it’s not the only murder and that the murder victim was a member of the French Foreign Legion.

Midnight Sun is strange. Even before the title sequence has rolled, we have “Death by being attached to a helicopter rotor and whirled around a lot”, which is just plain nonsense. Then at the end of the first episode (spoiler alert) Stormare dies of a stroke after the entire ground opens up in front of him – the nearby iron ore mine is so huge, so important that the fact it’s causing quakes and other problems means that rather than the mine be closed down, the town itself is being moved instead. Which is an odd choice that suggests a bit of funding money was needed.

After that, the focus is more on Bekhti’s relationship with Stormare’s deputy, Gustaf Hammarsten (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), which is a far more comedic partnership, although Stormare’s relationship with his wife is still both warm and amusing. By contrast to the experienced Stormare, however, Hammarsten is inept, constantly joking and constantly has problems with his teenage daughter.

The show also plays to cultural differences. Bekhti speaks French back in France and with other French people; Hammarsten and Stormare speak Swedish; none of them speak each other’s languages so the rest of the time, the dialogue is in English. But that still leaves plenty of time for jokes, with Bekhti’s request to Hammarsten to say a Swedish place name results in “It’s spelt as it’s pronounced”, which results in Bekhti telling a colleague to “just Google it”. Meanwhile, Hammarsten and Stormare’s boss is advising about the use of the French word ‘bordel’ (brothel) as a way of meaning ‘it’s a mess’ (well, it does but… What could possibly go wrong?), which is something a French audience will certainly have fun with. As the name suggests, Bekhti also has to deal with the Insomnia-esque issue of the constant daylight in her new home away from home.

However, the central dynamic of the two investigators isn’t that compelling, Bekhti’s having to deal with the news of her brother’s death and occasional desire to impale her hand on spikes usually makes her a little joyless, and I’m a bit tired of grotesque deaths and mutilations by genius killers, even if you aren’t. I’ll probably watch some more of it, because later episodes look at the local native culture more, but this isn’t the instant classic Broen/Bron was.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Old Vic – Until 6 May)
The play that made Tom Stoppard’s name, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes two minor characters from Hamlet who appear in a few scenes and are then declared dead, and catapults them into their own play, imagining what they got up to in between scenes and using those dialogues to discuss the nature of fiction, the nature of theatre, what it is to be a thinly drawn supporting character and to critique Hamlet itself. The play is an amazing piece of work, clever and witty, written in modern day English except whenever it meets up with the mothership again, where it uses the original’s dialogue.

However… the two leads are Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively (or is that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?). Whichever way round it is, it was the wrong choice, because while McGuire is perfectly good and has decent presence, Radcliffe, who has the more passive character, is… passive and uncharismatic as the role demands, but far more so than necessary, resulting in a chemistry-less pairing and McGuire doing all the heavy lifting. Director David Leveaux also allows the two to rush the dialogue, perhaps to keep the play to its very tight two and a half hour runtime, meaning that it’s almost impossible to savour the writing and sometimes to even hear it.

Both McGuire and Radcliffer, however, are eclipsed by the more seasoned David Haig (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Yes, Prime Minister) as the leader of the strolling players. Direction is fine, although quite sexualised, and the party of teenage schoolkids behind me couldn’t quite cope, so spent the whole time commenting on it. Try to ensure you don’t have an audience of easily embarrassed schoolkids behind you if you’re going to watch it.

To be honest, not a great production, but a perfectly solid one and enough of the text shines through that it’s still no failure. Try the movie instead, though.

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What have you been watching? Including Detroiters, Amadeus and Cardinal

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching. 

I’ve been having to fix stupid email servers for most of the day, so you’ve been cheated out of a review of the first episode of 24: Legacy, I’m afraid. Sorry about that, but as episode two is airing tonight, it seems more appropriate to do a review of them both tomorrow.

Last week, I reviewed the first episodes of Riverdale (US: The CW; UK: Netflix) and Powerless (US: NBC), and coming later in the week are reviews of not just 24: Legacy but the first episodes of two other new US shows, Superior Donuts and Training Day, maybe Legion as well, and an Australian show that starts on Thursday – Newton’s Law. Guess what that’s about. No, nothing to do with changes in momentum or the like.

After the jump, a look at the latest episodes of Canada’s Cardinal, the UK’s Fortitude and the US’s DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Lucifer, The Magicians, Man Seeking Woman, Riverdale and Timeless. But I did watch the first episode of another show:

Detroiters (US: Comedy Central)
A couple of Detroit-based lads starting out in advertising hussle the best way they can to get work, particularly from the local car manufacturers. Trouble is, they’re a bit under-motivated.

Despite being on Comedy Central, Detroiters does start off surprisingly smartly with a nice camaraderie between the two leads. The fact it was set somewhere other than the coasts or Chicago was also a plus pointing. I was thinking this could be at least the new How To Make It In America but with a few jokes.

Then they spent what felt like about five minutes throwing things at a glass door to see if it would break and I realised I was in Comedy Central stoner territory yet again.


And if you were wondering why I didn’t have much to say for myself on Wednesday, it’s because I was at… the theatre!

Amadeus (National Theatre, London)
Peter Schaffer’s play about 18th century Italian composer Salieri’s claim to have murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the classics of modern theatre. No mere historical retelling, it gives us a man inspired by God to do great works but upon discovering that He has instead chosen to give musical genius to the foul-mouthed man-child Mozart, dedicates himself to the undoing of both God and His instrument.

The last time I saw it staged was at the Old Vic with David Suchet over a decade ago, so I was intrigued to see what they did with it this time. Ladies and gentlemen – it’s a comedy and not a very subtle one at that. Copious ham from both leads – Lucian Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart – mean the play loses considerable depth in terms of the characters and it’s hard to feel sympathy for either of them. With a few exceptions, the supporting cast do little to ameliorate the problem, either.

That aside, it’s a very fine production, far more musical than I’ve seen before, with an orchestra and singers on stage and as much a part of the performance as the actors. A few minor acts of pretension (the Viennese having mobile phones) can’t distract from the quality of the direction in the rest of the performance.

But it’s a pale shadow – how could it be otherwise? – of 1984’s Amadeus, which is comfortably in my all-time Top 3 movies, so really, you should watch that as soon as possible if you haven’t already. Although not the Director’s Cut: to misquote Inspector Morse‘s classic Masonic Mysteries episode, “I won’t have it in the house.”

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What have you been watching this Christmas? Including Elf, The Force Awakens, Doctor Who and Kung Fu Killer

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

The Christmas holidays/Saturnalia are a time for revelry and fun, followed by bloated lounging around watching TV. At least, they usually are. This year, good TV was slightly harder to find, so after the jump in this Christmas viewing round-up, the only Christmas specials I’ll be looking at are Doctor Who and Sherlock, as well as the slightly unexpected and un-Christmasy Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes. Several of the regular shows also finished their runs over Christmas, so I’ll be taking a gander at Ash vs Evil Dead, The Bridge and Legends, and I finally finished the first season of The Man In the High Castle, too.

That doesn’t sound like much viewing for two weeks, and you’d be right. I also watched a few movies and even went to the theatre:

Elf (Dominion theatre, London)
A stage adaptation of the delightful Will Ferrell Christmas classic movie, in which a Christmas elf discovers he’s really a human and ventures south to New York to find his children’s book-publisher father (James Caan), only to discover that daddy is in Santa’s naughty list. He gets a job at a department store, where thanks to adorable co-worker Zooey Deschanel, he discovers the human thing called love, and manages to restore Christmas cheer to the world.

Initially tediously slavish to the original, right down to the New York setting requiring the entirely British cast to put on US accents, this musical version starts to get better only when the story begins to diverge halfway through. The show is also more knowing than the original, losing some of its innocence and adding jokes that only the adults in the audience will get.

Ben Forster (winner of ITV’s Superstar), who’s got a cracking set of pipes on him, plays Buddy the Elf a bit closer to Jim Carrey than to Will Ferrell, while Girls Aloud’s similiarly pipe-equipped Kimberley Walsh (I’d misread that as Kimberly Wyatt from Sky 1’s Got To Dance, so was a bit disappointed when I realised my mistake…) foregoes Deschanel’s hipster quirkiness in favour of being just a cynical woman embittered by too many of life’s disappointments. More interestingly – again for the adults – is the presence of 80s/90s stars Joe McGann (The Upper Hand) and Jessica Martin (Doctor Who, The Bobby Davro Show) as Buddy’s human parents.

It’s a lavish affair with a good cast that’s still very entertaining and that eventually finds its feet, but it’s better if you’ve never seen the original and imagine it’s all set in London – they missed a trick there.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) (iTunes)
Every Mission Impossible is a bit different but this time we do get something a bit closer to the first movie in the series, with an attempt to do proper spy stuff again. Senator Alec Baldwin is trying to shut down the Impossible Mission Force, just as Tom Cruise cottons on to the fact that rogue agents from other countries’ spy agencies have clubbed together for nefarious purposes, forcing the team to go on the lam. Can Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and generic token woman Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen) stop the ‘rogue nation’, even though its agents are supposedly every bit as good as IMF and wise to how it does business? 

You betcha, but the fun is in finding out how. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie gives us some occasionally thrilling, mostly too-CGIed action set pieces, as well as some surprisingly funny moments and the traditional con jobs, although an attempt to create parallels to Casablanca are ill judged, Renner is confined almost entirely to chatty scenes in Washington and London has about 1,700 red telephone boxes for no good reason. Also amusing for UK viewers is that the British government appears to be entirely composed of the cast of Rev.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (20150 (in cinemas)
Simultaneously answering the questions “What if it had been Princess Leia rather than Luke Skywalker left on Tatooine?” and “What must it be like to work for the Empire?”, this new Star Wars movie has newcomer Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet waiting for her family to return to pick her up. Into her life come a comedic stormtrooper-with-a-conscience sidekick (John Boyega) and a droid looking for an old jedi. Together they have to escape the revamped Empire, find the rebels, meet Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon and destroy the Empire’s new, definitely-not-the-Death-Star-oh-no superweapon.

JJ Abrams gives us the first decent addition to the Star Wars series since the 80s through the simple measure of giving us Star Wars again, but with modern special effects and a few character/relationship switches just to obfuscate the fact it’s the same movie as the first one. But it is a very decent remake-sequel, reminding you of just how good the original was, being genuinely thrilling, funny and enjoyable throughout, not invoking any of the tedious cruft that Lucas added in the prequels, and giving us a decent new cast and a return of the old cast. And it’s great to have one of these things about a girl rather than a boy for a change, too.

The big question, given where the film ends, is whether the next one is going to be a simple retread of The Empire Strikes Back or whether there are still new stories to be told in the franchise.

Kung Fu Killer/Jungle (2014) (Netflix)
Top martial artist Donnie Yen’s in Hong Kong nick for murder, when other top martial artists start getting killed off, forcing the police to recruit him to stop the murderer from killing anyone else. But does Yen know more than he’s letting on and can he stop the killer before he gets to his girlfriend?

It’s a largely unremarkable plot, but what lifts Kung Fu Killer are its fight scenes, direction and cast. Featuring pretty much a who’s who of the Hong Kong martial arts industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera (stick around to the end to see if you spotted everyone), the movie is often a Chinese travelogue and has some directorial flourishes that nod to a diverse range of movies, including The Bourne Supremacy, although its CGI is a bit weak and the wire work a bit too obvious. The best fight is saved for Yen and till last, but the movie fills its runtime in an almost Game of Death-style deconstruction of kung fu, each scene showing a different aspect of Chinese martial arts.

Worth watching if you want to see what a modern Hong Kong martial arts movie looks like and to see Donnie Yen on good form.

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What have you been watching? Including Medea (Almeida), The Beautiful Lie, The Player, Y Gwyll and Limitless

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

With no Cumberemergency to take me away from it all this week, here’s WHYBW, right on schedule. This week, I’ve already reviewed the first episode of ABC’s rather bad (in all senses of the word) Wicked City, and passed a third-episode verdict on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; of course, Supergirl began this week on CBS and Sky1, but I previewed that a while ago. That means that after the jump, you can enjoy my thoughts on the latest episodes of 800 Words, Arrow, The Beautiful Lie, Blindspot, The Flash, Limitless, The Player, Y Gwyll and You’re The Worst.

But I’ve also been to the theatre again! Proper theatre, too – none of that ‘theatre at the movies’ rubbish, neither.

Medea (Almeida, until November 14)
Remember Clueless and how everyone was impressed at how Amy Heckerling had taken Jane Austen’s Emma and modernised it for American teenagers? Remember how it wasn’t called Emma

That’s probably Medea‘s biggest failing. Had it been called Northern London Writer Is Getting A Divorce From Her Actor Husband Jason and the Kids Are Being Dragged Into It, people would probably have been raving about it being a great modern feminist play, with marvellous parallels to the Euripidean Medea

However, if you call something Medea, there’s a certain expectation that there should be a certain amount of dialogue, plot, characters, etc from the original. Whereas this Medea has virtually no lines, few characters, few themes and few plot elements in common with the original. Which is probably why no one’s been raving about it.

On its own terms, it’s not bad. In terms of staging, it’s a sort of halfway house between the Almeida’s almost traditional Bakkhai and its archly inventive Oresteia, sometimes a little too pretentious for its own good to the point of laughability, but usually taking good decisions about how to depict events. Kate Fleetwood is as good as Helen McCrory was at the National last year, but less ‘actorly’ about it. The feminism isn’t so much sub-text as both text and super-text, with endless debates about the place of women in society, women’s value, men, fathers et al. The changes made by Rachel Cusk feel almost autobiographical – even if they aren’t, you’ll still feel they are by the end of it.

The worst aspect of the play is that it has the somewhat clumsy move of having a god/goddess explain the feminism of it all to the audience at the end. It also feels, given how much plot innovations Cusk has added to the text, like she’s realised she’s run out of time, as virtually everything that gets set up by her ends up explained concluded hurriedly at the end by this god/goddess. You could potentially argue that it’s a traditional move for a Greek tragedy, to have a god explain the plot, but it sits poorly in such an otherwise modern play. 

It’s intermittently interesting and clever, with a lot to say for itself, even if it could say a lot of it with considerably more subtlety and maybe better pacing, too. But whatever you do, don’t go in thinking you’re going to see something that’s anything like what Euripides wrote.

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