Stranger Things: The First Shadow review – Phoenix Theatre, London ★★★★★

Louis McCartney as Henry Creel. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow review – Phoenix Theatre, London

Rating: ★★★★★

‘The following file is classified,’ we’re warned at the beginning of Stranger Things: The First Shadow which opens this week in what is undoubtedly the biggest and most eagerly awaited West End debut of a new play since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One & Two in 2017. There’s even an overblown narrative that Stranger Things is swooping in like Captain America to save the West End. Even without context, this is event theatre – and what an event; Netflix have brought their blockbuster might to the stage.

The production, directed by Stephen Daldry, with co-direction by Justin Martin, is written by Kate Trefry from an original story by the Duffer Brothers, creators of the television series, Jack Thorne and Kate Trefry. How to describe it the story without spilling the secrets of the classified file, as both press and punters have been asked to do? Tricky – but let’s try it.

It’s 1959 in Hawkins, Indiana, thirty years before the events of the television series, and this slow town is just like any other. Hawkins High School is about to put on its annual musical and there’s a new student joining the fold; the Creel Family have moved to the town from Nevada and the outsider Henry Creel (Louis McCartney) is meeting his new schoolmates, including fellow outsider Patty Newby (Ella Karuna Williams). Then there’s a few familiar (if younger) faces from the series; the brash Joyce Maldonado (Isabella Pappas, with a striking resemblence to Winona Ryder) who’s directing the school production and dreaming of escape, the loyal James Hopper Jr (Oscar Lloyd) who’s locking horns with the Chief of Police (his father) and thinking about escape too, and the geekish Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley), Patty’s brother who is infatuated with Joyce and spending his spare time broadcasting his amateur radio show.

Isabella Pappas as Joyce Maldonado, Oscar Lloyd as James Hopper Jr, Christopher Buckley as Bob Newby. Photo: Manuel Harlan

From there it borrows the television show’s formula; disaster strikes and only our young heroes can come to the rescue. Which is what we want; we want Stranger Things on stage, right? Even better, this is binge-worthy theatre. Each of the play’s two halves acts as a Stranger Things ‘chapter’ – we’re basically being given two extended episodes (the total running time is 3 hours including an interval) to binge-watch on stage.

Those ‘episodes’ perfectly capture the tone of the television show. There’s the red luminous bar and the red-fonted title, familiar to everyone, to set up expectations for what’s to come, even if it’s maybe a little overused. Fans will recognise the feeling that comes from the cold, clean interiors and low mechanical whirrs of Dr. Brenner’s (Patrick Vaill) facility as well as the drama and tension of the young protagonists’ chase happening outside in Hawkins, through woods and dark cavernous buildings, as they attempt to foil… well, I can’t really say what they’re trying to foil – that would be a spoiler.

More, there’s the truly outstanding staging that seems to throw all of Netflix’s big and small screen budget at the Phoenix Theatre’s stage, with coup de théâtre after coup de théâtre through its technical wizardry. The combined effect of Miriam Buether’s set, Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher’s illusions and visual effects, 59 Productions’ video and visual effects, Jon Clark’s lighting design and Paul Arditti’s sound design is astounding. The hair-raising cold opening sequence is the most incredible technical feat achieved on a West End stage – it receives an ecstatic round of applause as it comes to an end and the famous title music bursts into life. Daldry and Martin make clever use of the basics too, with smart use of the stage’s revolve and some very impressive non-technical trickery.

Isabella Pappas (centre) as Joyce Maldonado with the company. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are fine performances from the young leads in the cast, most of all from McCartney in his professional debut. He is sensational as Henry Creel, swaying between vulnerability and volatility and back as he wrestles his inner demons in an incredibly physical performance. Pappas and Lloyd are engaging as the most familiar of the characters from the series, managing to capture the essence of Winona Ryder and David Harbour’s performances on screen without going even remotely near mimicry. Buckley’s gives Bob a warm, gentle and affable nature that ties the trio together. Among the ‘adult’ cast members, Michael Jibson is particularly good as Henry’s father, who is struggling with his own demons.

It’s not perfect; there are flaws and it wrestles with its status as a prequel. The stage show is marketed as being canon, and, given the interplay between the stories on screen and on stage, there isn’t quite enough flexibility for the play to tell its own tale because of how embedded in the main storyline these characters are, and it struggles a little with its plot and ending as a result.

When we get to the end, it doesn’t feel quite so much as a conclusion as it does a knowing bridge into Season One of the series. It means those coming to the show without the context of what’s come before might not feel quite as satisfied with the show’s conclusion as fans will. That’s not to say that anyone coming to this without that background won’t enjoy it: they will. It’s worth going for the staging alone but, to get your money’s worth, advance viewing of the series is advised.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is at the Phoenix Theatre, London until 25 August

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