Stranger Things: The First Shadow interview | Christopher Buckley on special effects, The Omen, and joining the West End’s biggest show

stranger things play christopher buckley interview
Share this Article:

We chat to the star of the Stranger Things play about playing Bob Newby, managing a DJ booth and the Netflix show eight years on.

If you’ve spent any time in central London over the past few months, chances are you’ve seen a poster or two for The First Shadow.

They’re hard to miss, really. They’re big, they’re red, and they feature the logo of one of the biggest TV shows on the planet. They’re also absolutely everywhere.

The world premiere of the Stranger Things play is an impressive get for the West End, leapfrogging Broadway to host Netflix’s first foray into the live theatre scene. Receiving widespread critical acclaim for its astonishing special effects and smart adaptation of the source material, The First Shadow is also – if Deadline is to be believed – just the first in a trio of plays revisiting the Lovecraftian world of Hawkins, Indiana.

“We as a cast haven’t been told anything in depth,” Christopher Buckley, who plays a young Bob Newby in the 1959-set play, tells me. What the non-denial means is a question my own telepathic powers are too underdeveloped to answer.

But Netflix’s influence on the show is stark even before the state-of-the-art special effects kick in. Sitting at a table in the Phoenix theatre’s foyer area – completely refurbished before The First Shadow opened – LED screens on the bar taps crackle with the show’s logo. One wall is dominated by a huge merchandise stand: t-shirts, mugs, keyrings, badges, magnets, and even plushie interpretations of the series’ most iconic monster.

“I desperately want one”, Buckley says, eyeing the shelf of tiny Demogorgons with the enthusiasm of a man who hasn’t felt how disturbingly silky they are. I suggest that they would almost certainly give him one if he asked. He laughs diplomatically. Truthfully, it’s hard to know what to do with a toy too disturbing for a child and too soft to sit on a shelf unsupported.

It’s not hard to see what drew the team behind The First Shadow to cast Buckly as young Bob  – the geeky radio shack manager originally played by Sean Astin in Stranger Things’ second season. As well as a reasonable physical resemblance to the former child star, he is clearly ecstatic about his gig more than two months since previews started. “I’m a huge science fiction and horror nerd”, he told me – a good start for a show with influences ranging from Stephen King to Ghostbusters.

I began our chat with a question whose answer should be self-evident: The First Shadow is the biggest show to hit the West End in years.

Is this the biggest project you’ve been a part of?

Hugely, yeah. I’ve done loads of lovely, exciting stuff since finishing drama school, but this is like…I’m at the Phoenix Theatre!

The funniest thing is that the Phoenix Arts Club, which is around the corner, the little the underground bar, I’ve been coming there and having a drink for years. And it was like “God, it would be good to do a show up there at some point.” Now, here I am!

And you’ve mainly stayed in theatre so far, right?

A lot of theatre and a lot of audio work: radio, some audiobooks.

That must have been good training for Bob’s radio show in the play…

Well, it’s interesting because I’ve loved radio since I was kid, and I was a huge fan of some of the older radio programmes like the original War Of The Worlds and The Goon Show. They would take three different sounds, mash them together to create, you know, a huge giant metal thing which plays the organ or something; there was a real sense of freedom in it. So getting to do that for this was glorious. The whole creative team was very accepting and willing for me to just have a play with it.

So a lot of the radio stuff came out of workshops?

Oh yeah, that’s all just playing and working things out through rehearsal. I’m very lucky because I still get to play around a lot and there are specific moments where I can improvise and play with different sounds.

But the rest of the play looks so tightly choreographed, how long were you in rehearsals?

We started in September at a television studio in East London, then mid-October onwards we had a month of tech runs in the Phoenix to make sure we got the timings right. The whole thing’s so precise – if someone pulls back a little on their dialogue, suddenly the whole revolving stage is a couple of seconds behind and everyone’s in the wrong position.

Have you managed to see the show yet?

No! People come up to us after seeing the show and they’re talking about specific bits, and so many of us in the company are just like “Oh yeah, that’s nice. I have no idea what that means.”

I desperately want to, though. I wonder if at some point I’ll take a holiday, although we do have the understudy run coming up very soon… But I still have to see some of those epic set pieces, because there’s so much running around that you can’t even take a moment to look around you, you’re just on and off again.

We should probably talk about Stranger Things. So what was your relationship with the show like before you were cast?

I remember watching it with my partner in our little flat in Birmingham, where we were living during drama school, and feeling like there’s nothing else like it – it had such a unique feel. I’m a huge science fiction and horror nerd, and the story was so compelling, that cohort of actors was amazing.

So then getting to come in, and being told those are your research resources, I was like, “I’ve got this.” I think a lot of us did do rewatches throughout the rehearsal process to reconfigure certain bits, but it’s such an impactful show already.

It’s one of those shows where I think it’s become so massive it’s actually easy to forget how original and impressive it was when it first started…

…And how unique it was, yeah. We didn’t really have anything like it in 2016. I think maybe you could say Twin Peaks kind of was a bit like that. The Twilight Zone, Tales From The Crypt… What was that children’s one? Tales From The Cryptkeeper? There was a dead zombie man. Anyway, there’s a bit of that.

Was there anything else you watched to get yourself in the zone?

I’m a huge fan of special effects before green screen came in, I’m a huge Ray Harryhausen fan. So I went back and looked at a couple of fifties films, monster films, specifically, like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea, just to get a feel of the zeitgeist of that period.

I was really drawn to The Omen as well. Henry is very much a Damien-esque character: people are trying to look after him, but he has this innate power and menace. Then I was reading a couple of other bits and bobs… Did you ever read Darren Shan? I re-read some Darren Shan because there’s a bit of the gore from that.

I love doing that wider resource work. It can really help if you’re feeling a bit lost on stage, it fills in some wonderful gaps.

I guess you have one of the harder jobs in the cast because you’re almost playing a young Sean Astin – who was a huge child star himself.

That was a key thing that was raised very early in rehearsals. Justin [Martin, co-director] didn’t want a full imitation, which is its own art form, it was more, “Go have a look and see where your character is headed, and think about what leads them there.”

So we kind of got to go away and review the show and sort of thing very psychologically. I looked at Sean and saw what he did with Bob, these little tiny gestures and movements and things and when that might be useful, I could bring that in. But I was never trying to imitate because that cast are just marvelous on their own.

Has he seen the show?

Apparently he’s coming. And I mean, I’m desperately excited. I’ve told the company manager not to tell me when he’s in. It’s just incredible because I’ve watched so much of what he’s done. And he is a wonderful actor for bringing so much heart and giving so much to his roles. I’m kind of worried I’m going to meet him and break down. It’s Samwise Gamgee, man!

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is booking now until 25th August 2024.

Share this Article:

More like this