An intoxicating marriage of epic story and mesmerising theatricality makes this a must-see for fans

By: Dec. 15, 2023
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Stranger Things: The First Shadow

It’s very much a case of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The winning formula of gruesome body-horror thrills, teenage romance, and fuzzy edged nostalgia for the analogue age will feel familiar in this highly anticipated stage prequel. But if that formula is raking in millions who is complaining? If it’s Stranger Things you want, it’s Stranger Things you’ll get.

It could have risked devolving into campy schmaltz but Kate Trefry, along with Jack Thorne, pen a standalone story that stands strongly on its own two feet. An adventure romp brimming with action and exploding with spectacle, expect a fare few winks to the fans along the way and a healthy dash of horror.

We are in 1950s Hawkins with teenage versions of favourite characters navigating the hormone fuelled ebbs and flows of small town America. Backstories are interwoven deftly: Henry Creel’s socially maladjusted childhood and metamorphosis into the mad bad muscle monster Vecna takes centre stage. Jim Hopper’s journey from rebel without a cause to straight-laced cop and the seeds of his will-they won’t-they relationship with Joyce, who rather reflexivley is directing the High School play, are firmly sown together to a soundtrack of Elvis and doo wop.

Yes, you probably do need to have watched the show to get what is going on. The light shed on characters’ backstories gives them added depth and intrigue. Even sadistic G-man Dr Brenner is given a suitably creepy past, made all the more deliciously spine-chilling by an excellent Patrick Vaill and the writing’s attention to real world conspiracy theories.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow

The most praiseworthy inheritance from the show is the decision to cast newcomers as leads. Louis McCartney makes an outstanding professional stage debut as the tormented Creel, creepy in spades, but always retaining a flicker of magnetic humanity. Ella Karuna Williams plays Creel’s love interest Patty Newby with heartfelt sincerity. No doubt like the series they will go on to become household names, and the rest of the cast do dazzling jobs of capturing their screen counterparts’ idiosyncrasies.

The boundary between stage, screen, and streaming service has never been more blurred. Almost literally. Steven Daldry’s production is supercharged with kinetic energy thanks to Miriam Buether’s gorgeously evocative set design. The revolve stage spins around sliding one scene cinematically into another. Even opening titles borrowed straight from the TV show make a grand appearance anchored with now iconic electro score. Sadly there’s no Kate Bush. But there is Philip Glass whose soundtrack, borrowed from his operas, sets the tone for the epic standoffs to come.

Is this a bad thing? The stage and the screen will never be substitutes but Stranger Things: The First Shadow never feels limited by the medium. It leans into the theatricality hammering the audience with slick illusions and visually stunning trickery applied impasto. No expense is spared but that is hardly surprising.

Netflix lackeys were scurrying around the press night no doubt crossing their fingers for a hit. They can breathe a sigh of relief. But I doubt they were holding their breath.

Read our interview with actor Michael Jibson about the show here.

Stranger Things_The First Shadow plays at The Phoenix Theatre until 25 August

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan