In the market for some Hawkins-shaped Polyfilla for that big old Stranger Things hole in your life? Well, I happen to have just the thing. December is the month for giving – and the Duffer Brothers have delivered in spades with this one. Their brand new production, Stranger Things: The First Shadow, hit the West End stage earlier this month – and let me tell you: it’s bloomin’ brilliant.
Step inside London’s Phoenix Theatre and allow yourself to be transported back in time to Hawkins, 1959 – “before the world turned upside down”. This prequel story to the cult Netflix show gives an enthralling insight into life before dungeons, dragons and demogorgons, and sheds light on how the run-of-the-mill town got flipped upside down when new kid, Henry Creel (AKA Vecna), arrived on the block.
The stage play works off an original story by the Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne, and Stranger Things writer and co-executive producer Kate Trefry. Steering the ship directorially is none other than Tony-winning director Stephen Daldry. So yes, it’s unsurprising that I was utterly enthralled and on the edge of my seat from start to finish.
The story takes the audience back to the very beginning, starting with the disappearance of a wartime ship, and a lab experiment that explains the birth of the Upside Down. We’re then fast-forwarded to the late fifties, when the plot goes on to follow high school teenagers, Bob Newby, Jim Hopper and Joyce Maldonado (recognise any of those names?!) as they investigate the mysterious deaths of multiple neighbourhood pets.
The production has the same sense of sprawling mystery as the TV show, and flawlessly blurs the line between stage and screen. The whole experience was so immersive, I had to remind myself multiple times that I hadn’t actually been sucked through my television. No spoilers here, but let’s just say that it’s not often that the stranger in the seat next to you has to confirm that you’re okay after you screamed at the top of your voice. More than once.
A knowledge of the TV show storyline makes for some gloriously satisfying ‘ohhh‘ moments, but it’s certainly not imperative to be an avid fan. And whilst the collective gasp as the audience pieced the puzzle together was pretty special to be a part of, there’s no doubt in my mind that you would still enjoy the stage production having never seen an episode in your life.
The casting was quite simply *chefs kiss*, and every member of the cast did a wonderful job of taking inspiration from their grown-up Netflix counterparts, whilst making the characters entirely their own. Louis McCartney as a young Henry Creel gave one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen on the West End in a while; vulnerable, believable and utterly terrifying. Oscar Lloyd as Jim Hopper Jr was so effortlessly charasmatic and the chemistry between him and Isabella Pappas as Joyce was spot on. The production on the whole was also a true masterclass in lighting design, sound design and special effects. The full package, so to speak.
It was dark and twisted one moment; bright-eyed and bushy tailed the next, and jam-packed with high-school nostalgia and even a little sprinkling of song and dance at one point. A production with the perfect balance of darkness and light, which truly satisfied both my inner theatre kid and my inner nerd.
Anybody who’s worried that this might just be yet another money-making gimmick, need not fret. I can assure you that this stage show has got all the style and all the substance. Just how we like it.
Stranger Things: The First Shadow is playing at the Phoenix Theatre until August 25, 2024.