'Stranger Things: The First Shadow' review – the awe-inspiring sci-fi spectacular is out of this world

Read our five-star review of Stranger Things: The First Shadow, directed by Stephen Daldry, now in performances at the Phoenix Theatre to 25 August.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Netflix makes its stage debut in spectacular fashion with this keenly anticipated – and, I can happily reveal, totally awe-inspiring – theatrical version of the streamer’s hit sci-fi series Stranger Things. Crucially, it’s a must-see not just for superfans, but for anyone excited by boundary-pushing theatre that harnesses jaw-dropping special effects while telling a very relatable human story.

Largely taking place in 1959, it’s essentially a prequel to the 1980s-set show. We see teenage versions of familiar characters, including Henry Creel, who (spoiler alert!) we know will become Vecna, ruler of hellish dimension the Upside Down, and the big bad for the final season.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow expands on Henry’s origin story as a troubled kid with nosebleeds and strange powers. His family has just moved to the idyllic small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The main tension is between those, like Henry, who long to seem “normal” and fit in, and others such as Joyce Maldonado and Jim Hopper who yearn to rebel and escape this sleepy town.

It’s an inspired choice for a story, both a thrill for fans, enriching characters we know and love, and, as a standalone prequel tale, accessible to newcomers. This remarkable production should also sell audiences on the specific wonder of theatre – just as another Sonia Friedman-backed phenomenon, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has done.

I’m loathe to give away too many details. Suffice to say there’s a spooky mystery, which brings together a misfit group of amateur sleuths. That’s Joyce, who’s directing a secret, subversive school play; Hopper, aka “Junior”, who is constantly undermined by his bullying cop father; and tech geek Bob, who’s the closest to the show’s D&D crew.

We also see Henry bond with a fellow outsider, Bob’s adopted, mixed-race sister Patty, over a shared love of comic books. Parent-child relationships are a key factor here, and the supernatural is firmly rooted in the psychological – primarily fear and trauma. It’s no coincidence that several dads are war veterans.

Writer Kate Trefry, in consultation with Jack Thorne and the Duffer Brothers, perfectly matches the series’ blend of horror and humour. Stephen Daldry likewise combines digital and theatrical magic to create otherworldly effects (like the bravura opening, involving a disappearing naval ship, through to levitation, exploding light bulbs and spine-tingling scenes in the Upside Down), without ever losing sight of the human drama.

That latter is boosted by the incredible casting. Isabella Pappas isn’t just a dead ringer for Winona Ryder, she also nails Joyce’s mix of bravado and vulnerability. Oscar Lloyd captures the misunderstood young Hopper’s unfocussed energy, while Christopher Buckley is wonderfully endearing as Bob.

Excellent too are Ella Karuna Williams as the sensitive Patty, Patrick Vaill as a chillingly manipulative Dr Brenner, Matthew Pigeon as the authoritarian principal, Michael Jibson as Henry’s haunted dad, Lauren Ward as his terrified mum, and, in what should be a star-making role, Louis McCartney as Henry – by turns shy, awkward, enraged, scared and curious as he battles to own his identity.

Miriam Buether’s sleek design – aided by a speedy revolve, which also helps Daldry snap-cut between scenes – whisks us between the high school gym and a creepy attic, via alternate worlds and fantasy numbers. Brigitte Reiffenstuel supplies evocative period costumes, and DJ Walde judiciously selects songs that flip between nostalgic and disturbing, like “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Buffy nerds will recognise that from a season two episode.)

At times, when we’re plunged into darkness, with only torch beams to guide us, it feels like a return to telling spooky tales around a campfire. Budding director Joyce also preaches the power of stories – and that becomes a key Hamlet-riffing plot point. This astounding show definitely feels like a new chapter in theatre. It’s out of this world.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is at the Phoenix Theatre through 25 August. Book Stranger Things: The First Shadow tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Louis McCartney in Stranger Things: The First Shadow (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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