Stranger Things The First Shadow – Phoenix Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Kate Trefry (Original Story Jack Thorne and the Duffer Brothers)

Director: Stephen Daldry

In an early episode of the Duffer Brothers’ TV series Stranger Things a pair of the geeky, gawky, wisecracking high school kids who populate the show practise shooting pistols at beer cans. One of the duo misses every target. His companion complains, ‘You’re not a great shot’. The other replies, ‘I am, I was aiming at the air between the cans’. The lesson? Hitting something sometimes means missing something else. Stranger Things The First Shadow is a show that simultaneously hits and misses.

Indiana, 1959. There is a new student at Hawkins High School in the form of the angry, socially inept, nosebleed-prone Henry Creel (Louis McCartney). Lights flicker, radios crackle, fuses blow, and engines explode when he passes near. But Patty (Ella Karuna Williams), downtrodden adopted daughter of school Principal Newby and all-round asshole (Matthew Pidgeon), senses fellow feeling. The couple gels over a shared love for superhero comics and secret cyphers. Patty, periodically grounded by her dad for “general ungratefulness”, offers up a prayer for a better life to the spirit of Wonder Woman. Will it be answered?

This being Stranger Things, Henry is tuned in to the dark forces of the Upside Down, a weird alternate dimension inhabited by dreadful monsters and existing in parallel to the human world. He can listen in on people’s thoughts too, helpful in Patty’s search for her birth mother.

“Don’t scratch your scars” mum Virginia (Lauren Ward) tells Henry, but he does, and the boy’s tragic flaw is revealed in a very bleak backstory indeed. As his world collapses around him, Henry, a character drawn directly from Greek tragedy and superbly brought to life by a magnetic McCartney, finds solace in the presence of the sinister and shadowy Dr Brenner.

Meanwhile, drama club leader Joyce (Isabella Pappas oozes worldly-wise charm) is putting on a school play about a witch boy falling in love with a human girl: a neatly packaged metatheatrical hint as to where, in one of three fiendishly complex converging plotlines, The First Shadow may be taking us. Family pets are brutally slain. What connects the killings? All the owners are cast members. Joyce joins the local police chief James Hopper (Oscar Lloyd) and school radio ham Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) to track down the culprit. Needless to say, they have no idea of the dangers they face.

In the show blurb, the Duffer Brothers explain their aim is “to write a play that felt like a mega episode of Stranger Things”. They have hit that target stupendously well. The First Shadow, essentially a prequel to the entire world of the TV series, is about as true to the feel of the enterprise as it is possible to imagine. Scooby-Doo style sleuthing combines with high school romance, comedy, frightening supernatural visitations, jump scares, gruesome death, extended narrative exposition, and phenomenal CGI and special effects. This is indubitably a show for the fans. The voluble standing ovation at the close suggests it hits its mark.

Underpinning the show’s success is brilliant direction from Stephen Daldry and utterly stunning theatrical mise-en-scène. Miriam Buether’s immaculately executed sets rarely stop revolving long enough for the cast to take a breath. Skies of sulphurous yellow and orange fulminate over our heads. Mirrors shatter. Smoke emerges from Creel’s hand and dances across the entire elevation of the stage. Hazmat-clad scientists armed with radiation detectors roam portentously through the auditorium, engulfed in haze. Three-dimensional projections turn the stage into a spooky attic and the dark wet landscape of the Upside Down. This is a masterclass in technical creativity.

So where does The First Shadow miss? In the background, like a lurking Demogorgon pushing its head in from the Upside Down, is the feeling that this franchise is in danger of eating itself. Trapped in an ever more fastidious drive to stick to its canon and formula, the show struggles to step away from the TV blueprint or find new things to stay. It is as if Stranger Things is, like Will in Season One, tuck, unable to escape its own parallel universe.

One senses theatre legend Daldry, and original story writer Jack Thorne recognise the need for innovation by inserting elements more obviously attuned to theatrical sensibilities. There is a full-on musical number and a scene set in the town police station, almost entirely composed of slapstick comedy. Both are well executed, but the tone feels oddly inappropriate, jarring even.

Runs until 25 August 2024

The Reviews Hub Score.

Mega episode of Stranger Things.

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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