Learn more about all the period references in 'Back to the Future' and 'Stranger Things'

These two great London shows are filled to the brim with 1950s and 1980s treasures – and you can pair your theatre trip with a mouth-watering retro meal.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

There is time travel galore in the West End right now, thanks to an influx of sci-fi hits that transport us to another era. Of course, that’s literal time travel in the case of the hit Back to the Future: The Musical, in which Marty McFly is accidentally catapulted from the 1980s to the 1950s, as well as shows taking us on a more figurative nostalgic journey.

Spookily, those two decades are also key to Stranger Things. The Duffer Brothers’ hit Netflix series is all about the 1980s, while the incredible stage spin-off, Stranger Things: The First Shadow, is set in the 1950s – giving us a glimpse of some of our favourite characters when they were in high school, as well as tantalising hints about the streaming drama’s upcoming endgame.

Even better, you can pair these must-see shows with more time-travelling via London’s attractions and restaurants, from ten-pin bowling to a mouth-watering American diner. Learn more about the retro fun to be had in our guide.

Book Back to the Future: The Musical tickets and Stranger Things: The First Shadow tickets on London Theatre.

Retro references in Back to the Future: The Musical

This show is one big blast from the past! It’s based on the iconic 1985 movie, starring Michael J Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as his eccentric scientist pal Dr Emmett Brown. When the Doc creates a time-travelling car — the iconic DeLorean — Marty finds himself interacting with his own parents as teens. Only he can save his family’s future.

Bob Gale, co-writer of the original film, adapted it for stage, which is why it feels like such a faithful and thrilling continuation of the franchise. It’s also jam-packed with brilliant nods to that 80s era.

Of course, Marty McFly has his trademark rad skateboard. He also dreams of becoming a rock god and featuring on MTV, and he performs a song that famously featured in the film: the 1985 Huey Lewis and the News hit “The Power of Love.” His girlfriend Jennifer’s music-exec uncle is named Huey as an homage to the frontman.

One of the musical’s fantastic original songs, “Hello, Is Anybody Home?,” paints a bleak picture of Marty’s family before his time-travelling antics – a disillusioned portrait of 1980s capitalist life. That includes references to working in McDonalds, and fighting over a Prince CD and a Walkman.

Marty films Doc’s time-travelling experiment with a very 1980s camcorder at the Twin Pines mall, while Jen takes a cute snap of her and Marty with her Polaroid. The DeLorean itself is an 80s icon too.

Plus: let’s talk fashion! Marty’s double denim and signature orange puffer vest is bang on trend in 1985 – but the latter gets mercilessly mocked when he lands in the 1950s. And, of course, Marty’s teenage mom thinks he’s called Calvin because of his Calvin Klein undies.

It’s all change once Marty gets transported to 1955. The hilarious satirical song “Cake” sets the scene: the townsfolk are blithely pumping their super-leaded gasoline, smoking cigarettes, using asbestos for home insulation, spraying DDT on their garden pests, and living in a strict patriarchy.

The kids now hang out in Lou’s Café, and the African-American Goldie Wilson’s dream of becoming town mayor is seen as far-fetched. One day, that social progress will be possible. There’s also a great gag involving Ronald Reagan. Marty tries to tell Doc that he’ll become President in his time, but that seems absurd in the 1950s when he’s still an actor.

Fashions are very different: designer Tim Hatley has great fun mixing it up in the show as we head back in time. The music is too, as the score riffs on 1950s doo-wop. While performing at the big school dance, Marty gets a bit ahead of himself with the 1958 Chuck Berry song “Johnny B Goode” – we haven’t reached full rock ‘n’ roll quite yet!

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Retro references in Stranger Things

One of the big reasons that audiences fell in love with this 2016 sci-fi Netflix show is the detailed re-creation of its 1980s setting – and the numerous nods to other classic films and TV series from that era.

The show takes place in the seemingly idyllic small suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana, where the government is secretly running tests on paranormal phenomena. One human subject, Eleven, escapes and befriends a group of local boys, plus the town’s police chief, Hopper. They all work together to battle the creatures of the Upside Down.

This scary premise is teeming with homages to legendary genre work, including Alien, Carrie, Akira, E.T., The Goonies, Jaws, Stand By Me, Nightmare on Elm Street, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Firestarter, Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, and The Evil Dead (posters for which hang in Mike and Jonathan’s bedrooms, respectively), as well as Halloween, The Exorcist – and much, much more.

The game Dungeons & Dragons features heavily in the show, especially in the first season, and the boys dress up as Ghostbusters for Halloween. Back to the Future even gets a nod – it’s playing at the Starcourt Mall in season three!

The show’s teenage growing pains and romances pay homage to other movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Pretty in Pink. Nancy, naturally, has a Tom Cruise poster up on her wall.

Stranger Things also picks up on social trends of the time, such as the outbreak of a hysteria dubbed “Satanic Panic”, and it has made retro pop classics huge again – most notably Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”

That love of period detail has carried over into the jaw-dropping Stranger Things stage show. Set mostly in 1959, it’s definitely still in conversation with those classic sci-fi and horror works – it centres on an outsider kid who longs to fit in, but adolescent anxieties are transformed into monstrous tendencies – and, like the TV show, all of the fashion and design is on point.

The young Bob runs his own amateur radio station, spinning discs, but there’s no Kate Bush here. Instead, we get a clever choice of songs like “I Only Have Eyes For You” which can feel both nostalgic and spine-chilling, depending on the context.

It’s significant for the story that some of the men are war veterans, and the production opens with an unforgettable sequence involving a giant ship – a nod to the fabled Philadelphia Experiment. Meanwhile the kids hang out in the diner, and put on a forbidden play written in the 1940s, The Dark of the Moon. It’s all part of creating a whole immersive world on stage.

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Retro fun in London

If your theatre trip inspires you to seek out more 1980s or 1950s entertainment, you can definitely keep the party going!

London has tons of great options, like the Rowans Tenpin Bowl in Finsbury Park. It features bowling, natch, as well as karaoke (so you can belt out some Chuck Berry or Kate Bush), pool, amusement arcades, and food and drink.

Or get a delicious taste of the 1950s at Big Moe’s Diner and Smokehouse. Enjoy your burgers, wings, soda floats, and shakes while sitting in a vintage-style leather booth. Then visit the jukebox and check out the Big Moe’s special attraction: a shiny red Chevrolet.

There’s a mouth-watering American menu at the iconic Hard Rock Café, too, where you can also commune with rock history – Marty McFly would definitely approve! The flagship London Hard Rock features treasures like Eric Clapton’s Fender guitar and Elvis Presley’s fur cape.

It’s also well worth a visit to the Rivoli Ballroom in south-east London – the only intact 1950s ballroom left in the city. You’ll recognise its striking scarlet interiors and glittering chandeliers from numerous movies, TV shows and music videos. Taking a turn on its sprung maple dance floor is a must, and there’s a busy calendar of retro events celebrating every era.

Book Back to the Future: The Musical tickets and Stranger Things: The First Shadow tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Back to the Future in the West End. (Photo courtesy of production)

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