Jane Edwardes in the West End
19 December 2023
It was clear going into the Phoenix Theatre on the second press night that the overnight reviews of Stranger Things: The First Shadow had been ecstatic. There was no missing the multiple stars plastered on the front of the building. But did the critics get swept away by the astonishing special effects? This stage adaptation, based on the hugely popular Netflix series, still feels like work in progress, and will surely change substantially over time, especially if it is ever to cross the Atlantic.
Louis McCartney and Ella Karuna Williams.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The original idea to adapt Stranger Things was that of director Stephen Daldry, a fan of the TV show. Fired by his enthusiasm, the Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne, and Kate Trefry came up with an original story, while Trefry has written the script. Young devotees of the series are the target audience, some of whom will probably never have been to the theatre before. Clearly not part of that group, I watched the first series before seeing the play, and enjoyed the mix of thrills, humour, and naivety.
As the musical Wicked delves into the backstory of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, so Stranger Things: The First Shadow goes back to the fifties to explore how young Henry Creel gave into his dark side and becomes the monster Vecna. Henry and his parents have recently arrived in the (fictional) town of Hawkins, Indiana, from Nevada, determined to start a new life. Henry is already showing worrying signs of not being “normal” and has psychokinetic powers. His father is suffering from PTSD after fighting in the war.
The TV protagonists – Dustin, Mike, Will, and Lucas – have yet to be born. Instead, Joyce and future police chief Hopper are still at high school, alongside many of the parents who appear in the series. The fifties setting allows for some great American Graffiti-style songs, and even a classic high school dance number. Cold War paranoia is apparent when a policeman is appalled to discover that Joyce has a copy of the Communist Manifesto in her bag.
Before we get to the high school scenes, there is an eye-popping opener, set ten years earlier, in which a giant US warship, apparently engaged in a top-secret, paranormal mission, comes to grief on stage. Rain falls on the stalls, mist swirls, and Paul Arditti’s sound effects give the impression that we in the audience are sinking too, to the grinding sounds of mechanical failure.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The scene sets a high bar for what is to follow. But the connection between the ship and the rest of the show is also somewhat lost in the mist. At the high school, nervous newcomer Henry teams up with Patty Newby (Ella Karuna Williams), the adopted daughter of the school’s principal. Patty is unhappy and desperate to find her birth mother. She feels rejected by the other students because of her colour, but Henry reassures her that all superheroes start off as outsiders. As she becomes aware of Henry’s extraordinary powers, she encourages him to use them for good. The core of the show is Henry’s Manichean battle between good and evil. But it is also its fundamental flaw, in that it is never completely clear that he has a choice. As Henry, Louis McCartney looks sweetly vulnerable when all is well, and twitches impressively when the psychic powers are in control.
Alongside the burgeoning relationship between Henry and Patty, Joyce, Hopper, and Brad are attempting to discover who is responsible for the soaring mortality rate of pets in Hawkins. They don’t seem to notice Henry’s odd behaviour, but focus instead on his dad as the probable offender. Joyce (Isabella Pappas) dreams of escaping the town. Her way out, she believes, is directing the school play, The Dark of the Moon, which Hamlet-like mirrors real life as it describes the relationship between a girl and a witch boy, played by Patty and Henry.
Throughout, it would be hard to fault the work of the vast technical team, headed by designer Miriam Buether. Illusions and visual effects designers Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher were involved in the stage adaptation of Harry Potter, and they have taken what they learnt there and gone even further. It’s not just the exploding animals, sudden appearance of aggressive spiders, levitating humans, and collapsing buildings, it’s also DJ Walde’s pounding, chilling music and Jon Clark’s extraordinary lighting that seems to add new depths to the stage.
Daldry and co-director Justin Martin have put on a gargantuan, fast-moving show that, for all the special effects, doesn’t lose the humanity of the story. Alongside the hokum, there is a plea for those who have been damaged by war, and for those who feel that they don’t fit in. Maybe too many writers have been involved, but crucially the show is too long given the lack of depth to the characters. Surprisingly, it is shocking rather than scary. The most frightening moment is when Patrick Vaill walks onstage towards the end of the first act and announces that he is the sinister Dr Brenner. Stranger Things: The First Shadow can be enjoyed by both those who are fans and, to a lesser extent, by those who are coming new to the story. But with greater clarity, and a shorter running time, it would be even more compelling.