Stranger Things: The First Shadow theatre review | Mind-flayingly good fun

stranger things the first shadow west end review
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A stellar cast and brain-bending special effects characterise a wickedly fun West End prequel. Here’s our Stranger Things: The First Shadow review.

It’s really not Stranger Things’ fault we’re all obsessed with the eighties.

While it’s easy to forget now given its world-dominating status, when the first season of the Duffer brothers’ love-letter to Spielberg, Dungeons & Dragons and Lovecraftian horror debuted in 2016, it was pretty unlike almost everything else on TV. Riding the dual waves of the streaming revolution and the 30-year nostalgia pendulum, the first season certainly hit upon something in the zeitgeist. By combining its supernatural horror with a genuinely intriguing mystery, there’s a reason Netflix’s poster series catapulted the company to the top of the streaming pile in the first place.

Much like Black Mirror before it, though, in recent years Stranger Things has occasionally fallen victim to its own success. Like its dystopian precursor, the sci-fi show’s name has become an adjective in its own right. Your film has a gang of middle-school kids in it? It’s a bit Stranger Things. That mushroom is leaking weird goo? Stranger Things. Something’s set in the eighties? You get the idea.

The greatest achievement of The First Shadow – Netflix’s first foray onto the West End stage in a collaboration with Sonia Friedman Productions – is that it recaptures a lot of the magic that made that first season feel so special. While the sci-fi horror’s impact on popular culture might be hard to escape on the big and small screen, the theatre world has so far seemed pretty far-removed from the Demogorgon’s fleshy limb-things. Those same tricks and visual effects we’ve seen a hundred times on the telly are an entirely different, occasionally transformational experience on a West End stage.

stranger things the first shadow west end review
Credit: Manuel Harlan

The first barrier writer Kate Trefry and director Stephen Daldry have had to overcome, of course, is a significant case of prequel-itis. Set primarily in Hawkins circa 1959, The First Shadow finds new kid Henry Creel (wonder what happens to him?) arriving at a high school populated by such luminaries as Joyce Maldonado (Isabella Pappas), James Hopper Jr. (Oscar Lloyd), Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) and a host of other familiar first and surnames. But if all of these people saw a bunch of creepy, Stranger Things stuff in 1959, why have they all forgotten about it by the time Will Byers goes missing in 1983?

From a purely technical standpoint, The First Shadow finds its way around this gaping plot-chasm with an impressive amount of skill, casting Joyce, Bob and Hopper as fun, mystery-solving side-protagonists without rendering the first two seasons of the show entirely nonsensical. The story never feels like it’s taking great pains to avoid narrative pitfalls, either, and while the resulting plot might not be anything to write home about (the first act in particular has far too many references to “that new show, The Twilight Zone” to keep eyes entirely un-rolled), it proves a serviceable delivery system for the real showstopper – the practical effects.

From the Demogorgon plushies spilling out of the auditorium to liberal use of big screens and animatronics, it’s clear Netflix have thrown a lot of money at this thing. No doubt buoyed by the effects-heavy debut of The Cursed Child in 2016 (The First Shadow entered development a year later), the prequel is clearly hoping to make an absolute fortune – and they’re willing to spend almost as much to make sure that happens. Every ominous rumble coming from offstage could just as easily be the gearing up of Netflix’s huge money cannon as the arrival of some new eldritch horror.

Unsurprisingly, then, these effects are little short of astonishing. From collapsing sets to quick changes, flickering lights to what must be theatre’s largest fog machine, several moments of misdirection had me squinting at the stage wondering: “how the hell did they do that?” The team have clearly got a lot of joy out of a blank cheque and permission to use every theatrical trick in the book, and it’s that sense of fun, more than anything else, that helps the 3-hour runtime fly by.

stranger things the first shadow west end
Credit: Manuel Harlan

The effects are far from just fancy window-dressing though. Completely and utterly capturing the tone of the show at its creepiest, most unnerving height, the play (which applies its signature synth-y soundtrack with an impressive amount of restraint) captures that fear of the unknown which made Stranger Things so intoxicating in the first place.

In fact, the effects only work as well as they do in concert with a universally terrific cast. As younger versions of Joyce and Bob, Isabella Pappas and Christopher Buckley have possibly the hardest parts to get right. Their roles were originally played by some of the most famous young faces of the 1980s (Winona Ryder and Sean Astin, respectively), but both perform some remarkable feats of not-quite-mimicry to make their characters completely believable whether you’re a superfan of the series or not.

All the plaudits, deservedly, though, will go to Louis McCartney’s frankly exceptional professional stage debut as the troubled young Henry. It’s a part that puts the whole show on its back, and while “character possessed by mysterious spooky alien thing” could easily fall into the realm of caricature, McCartney sells it with an earnestness which manages to be both empathetic and, often, very scary. His chemistry too, with similarly nerdy outsider Patty (Ella Karuna Williams) gives the script some much-needed heart whenever the story threatens to fall flat.

By the nature of its production, The First Shadow is likely to attract people to the West End who don’t normally make it to the theatre. As an entry point to London’s biggest stage, you certainly couldn’t get much flashier. Though the story often feels a bit more like a series of TV crammed into a 3-hour stage show, there’s more than enough wow factor here to justify Netflix’s most analogue premiere yet. At the end of the evening, it serves up a reasonably solid narrative buoyed by great performances, smart use of existing characters and the best stage effects in the UK. If that gets a few more folks buying over-priced tubs of ice cream, it’ll have done its job admirably.   

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is playing at the Phoenix Theatre from 17th November 2023 – 25th August 2024. Tickets are available here.

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