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Review: The Twilight Zone (Almeida Theatre)

Anne Washburn adapts eight episodes of CBS's classic TV series

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

An early prize for the weirdest Christmas show goes to the Almeida which has resuscitated eight episodes from the cult early 1960s sci-fi TV show The Twilight Zone and turned them into unsettling, dazzling and sophisticated entertainment.

I didn't quite see the point of it all, but then I don't see the point of panto either. And this is infinitely more enjoyable and original.

The largest bouquets have to go to the design team, led by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand. There are vital contibutions from illusionists Richard Wiseman and Will Houstoun, from Sarah Angliss, Christopher Shutt and the entire sound team, and Mimi Jordan Sherin's stark lighting. Together they have turned this tiny stage into a monochrome TV screen where the action unfolds with the inevitability and fluency of a dream. With walls that are "an endless field of stars", the cast are dressed in tones of black, white and grey, with occasional flashes of dull green and midnight blue.

Each scene is changed by figures who blend into the starry, infinite sky, looming out of the backdrop as destabilising and disconcerting as the stories that unfold within it. These are adapted from originals by the legendary Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson by rising star Anne Washburn who achieved such success with Mr Burns.

What everyone who remembers it remembers about The Twilight Zone is its little phrase of eerie music. But thematically what gripped viewers was its queasy mixture of alien invasion, space exploration and time slipping oddity, which captured the paranoid mood of a time when the world was threatened with nuclear annihilation. Weird things kept happening which were a tribute to the power of the imagination – "a land without limits" – that took its audience to strange, unreal places but made them seem possible.

This is what Washburn and the superb direction of Richard Jones fasten on here. With seamless brilliance they weave a story of a bus that arrives at an all-American diner with one extra passenger - "We're not looking for a needle in a haystack but for an alien in a diner" the clean cut cop explains - with one of a man who daren't go to sleep and another of a woman under threat who is warned of impending danger by a mysterious little girl.

Another girl vanishes from her bed at night, but her parents can hear her calling and a physicist comes to the rescue; men fly into the depths of space and seem to dissolve on their return. A woman floats across the stage (much excellent choreography by Aletta Collins) the bandages that hide her face unwinding like trails of cloud. Disembodied eyes and clocks travel by like a landscape by Man Ray or Dali.

All of this is accomplished with enormous flair. It is sometimes frightening, sometimes spooky and occasionally funny. The second half darkens when, faced with the onset of armageddon, and missiles raining down, the veneer of civilisation is stripped away and naked hatred reigns. A ventriloquist's dummy (the most terrifying thing in The Twilight Zone episodes I saw) sits on the counter of the diner and tells bad jokes.

The cast of ten, are uniformly excellent, playing multiple parts with precisely the right mxture of real and unreal, an affection for the style and texture of old-style TV. John Marquez as the narrator and as the sleepless man is particularly unnerving.

There's a wonderful running gag about cigarettes, and many clever devices that bind these separate stories into a perturbing whole to create a place where "the improbable is possible". The famous music may not make its appearance until right at the end, but the atmosphere and flavour of this cult TV show is precisely captured. Terrific.

The Twilight Zone runs at the Almeida until 27 January.

Read our Bah humbug guide to Christmas shows