Stranger Things: The First Shadow | 3hrs. One intermission. | The Phoenix Theatre | Charing Cross Road, London
Fans will be forgiven if they were skeptical of Netflix bringing the world of hit series Stranger Things into a London theater. How could the TV show, which relies heavily on fantastical and often horrific imagery, be translated as a play? But in the hands of director Stephen Daldry Stranger Things: The First Shadow is thrilling and immersive, impressively showcasing practical effects that feel unsettlingly realistic.
The First Shadow, scripted by Stranger Things writer Kate Trefry and conceived by series creators the Duffer Brothers, is a canon prequel to the onscreen story fans know and love. It’s set in 1959 as James Hopper (Oscar Lloyd), Joyce Maldonado (Isabella Pappas), and Bob Newby (Chris Buckley) are high school seniors in Hawkins, Indiana. Joyce, who has a thing for older guys, is directing the school play and enlists Bob’s adopted sister Patty (Ella Karuna Williams) and new student Henry Creel (Louis McCartney) to star in it. But Henry, who has just moved to Hawkins with his family, including father Victor (Michael Jibson), is struggling to contain a connection to a supernatural force he can’t fully control. Odd, terrifying things begin to happen in Hawkins as Henry’s powers strengthen.
Although the play embraces its ensemble cast, with many characters as the parents of the protagonists in Stranger Things, this is ultimately Henry’s story. Trefry wrote the script during production of Season 4, which revealed the true story of the Creel mystery and the origin of Upside Down villain Vecna. The TV storyline and that of the play align, for the most part, offering new insight into Henry’s eventual transformation and how and why Dr. Brenner (Patrick Vaill) came to Hawkins. The artfully-staged opening sequence, which is mind-blowing in its execution, also adds to the overall series lore.
The special effects, created by Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher, who also worked on Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, are a strength of the production overall. Scenes cut back and forth between characters, just like on TV, in a way that builds unexpected tension. Visual hints of the Upside Down and its monsters consume the theater in genuinely scary ways. A key action sequence unfolds in heart-stopping slow motion. A real-life rat explodes in a spray of blood (without actually harming the rat). It’s not for the faint of heart, with many audience members gasping and even screaming at a few scares. But it’s also a sweet story about friendship, like Stranger Things itself, and seeing an earnest, young Bob Newby alive again sent audible “awws” throughout the room.
The cast is uncanny, especially Pappas, who evokes a young Winona Ryder with such ease you almost can’t believe they aren’t related. But it’s newcomer McCartney who steals the show. His performance as Henry, as he struggles to contain the force that’s beginning to take over his mind and body, is electric and physically impressive. In a perfect world, the Duffer Brothers have a plan to cast him in flashbacks on the final season of Stranger Things.
The First Shadow, told in two chapters, has yet to reach a broader audience, having only opened on London’s West End in December. The producers have said there’s a plan to bring it to Broadway and hopefully beyond. But theater has its limitations, especially with such a globally-adored franchise. Season 5 of Stranger Things recently began production and will likely premiere on Netflix in 2024. How many fans will have seen this prequel by then? While it’s billed as a stand-alone story, much of the mythology feels essential to understand the larger world of the show. It’s so imaginatively, astonishingly staged that fans deserve to experience it live, rather than in a filmed and televised version. It’s as gripping as the series, which is really saying something.