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Reviewing ‘Stranger Things: The First Shadow’: London’s West End is Turned Upside Down

Smoke fills the awe-stricken auditorium in London’s Phoenix Theatre as the opening scene of Stranger Things: The First Shadow draws to a dramatic conclusion. Soldiers march through the stalls, guns ablaze, while on stage an enormous reincarnation of a World War Two battleship sinks into an alternate dimension before our very eyes, punctuated with the urgency of DJ Walde’s original soundtrack and the urgent screams of the ensemble cast. Gunshots. Silence. A familiar 80s electro theme song fills the air, and the audience erupts yet again. 

Louis McCartney as Henry Creel. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Matt and Ross Duffer’s expansion of their Stranger Things multiverse into London’s West End was considered by many as surprising, with this being Netflix’s first stage venture, which took no less than five years in the making. Most questioned just how they could possibly adapt a flashback scene in season four of one of the most successful television shows of all time - and its ambitious effects - on a stage before a live audience. After having the privilege of watching a preview performance of the show, it becomes deliciously clear that they have achieved all of this, and more.


Troubled young Henry Creel (played spectacularly by Louis Mccartney) is the new boy in town. Haunted by the ghosts of his dark past and his mysterious psychic powers, he develops an unlikely yet heartwarming relationship with Patty Newby (Ella Karuna Williams) as they bond over both their incredibly uncool love of comic books and how both feel like the odd ones out. Formidable teen Joyce Maldonado (soon to be Byers, played by Isabella Pappas) just wants to get the hell out of town. A budding director, she produces a rebellious school production of The Dark of the Moon which follows a witch boy as he falls in love with a human girl. Both Patty and Henry find themselves, of course, cast as the leads. Meanwhile, a misfit team is formed with Joyce and her unrequited lovers: lovable geek Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) and cavalier self professing bad-boy James Hopper Jr (Oscar Lloyd) - both fan favourites. Armed with homemade radios and tiny notepads, they investigate the mystery of what is really happening to the mangled dead animals that keep popping up around town - culminating in a Hamlet-style coup during the play-within-the-play. 

Isabella Pappas as Joyce, Christopher Buckley as Bob, Oscar Lloyd as Hopper. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Creel’s turbulent relationship with his traumatised father and overbearing mother lands him constantly isolated in his attic, where he explores the limits of his growing psychic abilities. This lands him inexorably in the hands of the nefarious Dr Brenner (Patrick Vail).


Kate Trefry’s complex script strikes a fine balance between scientific conspiracy theories such as Project Rainbow, supernatural monsters, and raw human vulnerability. Adoptee Patty yearns to find her birth mother; her father (Matthew Pidgeon) is tormented by severe PTSD from World War Two; Hopper is never good enough to meet his fathers expectations - the list could go on. At its very core, while monsters and smoke whirl around the stage, the play truly finds its feet when it explores the harsh realities of trauma, post-war devastation and their subsequent effects on family.  


Miriam Buether’s elaborate set (amalgamated with John Clark’s gorgeous lighting) melts the warm hallways of Hawkins High into the sinister laboratories of Hawkins Research Institute in mere seconds, aided with the addition of both an onstage revolve and the innovative use of film projection. The deft use of film affords the show a new angle with which it can transport the audience through time and space - for example, a flashforward scene demonstrated through a series of true-crime style newspaper headlines. Paul Arditti’s use of a nostalgic soundtrack presents itself as a love letter to the 1950s in both chilling and heartwarming capacities, while Brigette Reiffenstuel’s costumes bring the era to life. 

Louis McCartney as Henry Creel. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

What makes the show truly magical is its incorporation of mind-bending special effects which rival those of the television show live on stage. Spearheaded by 59 Productions (known for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony), the show became a feat of what modern day live theatre and technology can achieve when backed by an industry giant such as Netflix, who clearly spared no expense. Cats fly above the stage and explode in mid air, doppelgangers appear on stage as if we are seeing the same character twice, characters fall from collapsing buildings in slow motion, monsters burst out of the stage - the list could go on. 


Guided by the co direction of Stephen Daldry (The Crown, Billy Elliott) and Justin Martin (Prima Facie) who together share four Tony Awards and a BAFTA, a large portion of the younger cast - including leads Ella Karuna Williams and Louis Mccartney - are astonishingly making their professional and West End debuts. Much like the television show, whose child stars’ fame catapulted them into becoming household names, such as 19 year old Millie Bobby Brown. This is surely the beginning of an equally long career for Williams, McCartney and the talented ensemble. Joining them is theatre royalty, including Tony and Olivier Award nominated Lauren Ward as the overbearing Virginia Creel and Olivier Award winner Michael Jibson as the traumatised Victor Creel. 

Louis McCartney as Henry Creel, Ella Karuna Williams as Patty Newby. Photography by Manuel Harlan.

Furthermore, while it could be easy to conclude that this show is simply diligent fan service crafted by Netflix to create even more money, it is easily enjoyed by those who are experiencing their very first taste of Hawkins. Even in the interval, where the sound of static and radio correspondence was still playing over the speakers as if to fully immerse us into the world, the auditorium became abuzz with the excited chatter of just how each certain effect was achieved on stage. In the concession line, one woman claimed to her thrilled, merch-clad daughter that while she herself had never watched the television show, this was “the best theatre show [she] had ever seen”. 


Is the show still created by Netflix as a guarantee to make even more money? Probably. Is it one of the most lavish and innovative pieces of theatre the West End has ever seen? Absolutely. In short, it's a must see.



Stranger Things: The First Shadow is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre until August 25th, 2024.

 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.

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