It’s the biggest franchise on TV – and now Stranger Things has branched out into the theatre with an original play premiering in London’s West End. The result is a success in its own right.
Netflix’s 1980s-set sci-fi series Stranger Things is less a show than a phenomenon. Over its four seasons to date it has become one of the streaming service’s biggest global hits. It has made stars of some of its young cast members such as 19-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, and 21-year-old Sadie Sink who plays “Max” Mayfield. Older actors such as Winona Ryder, as Joyce Byers, and David Harbour, as Jim Hopper, have seen their careers boosted too. It has spawned clothing lines and merchandise and has even been credited with an upsurge of interest in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Now, with the fifth and final series delayed because of the actors’ and writers’ strikes, Stranger Things is extending its influence into London’s West End with an original play. Directed by three-times Oscar-nominated Stephen Daldry and with a script by Kate Trefry, a writer on the TV show, Stranger Things: The First Shadow is based on a story cooked up by Trefry, Jack Thorne (who co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and showrunners the Duffer Brothers. It has been reported that it’s already being lined up for a Broadway transfer, while two further stage instalments are being considered.
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The First Shadow is a prequel to the series. It begins with what is effectively a pre-credits sequence which depicts, with a twist, the mythical Philadelphia Experiment, a military test conspiracy theorists claimed the US Navy carried out in 1943. The experiment supposedly succeeded in making a ship, the USS Eldridge, invisible, temporarily teleporting it to a location many miles away. It makes for a spectacular prologue: visually ambitious, loud and scary and entirely in keeping with the series which has drawn inspiration from genuine secret US government projects such as MKUltra.
Then we’re off to the familiar town of Hawkins, Indiana. It’s 1959 and we meet as teenagers several of the characters we already know as adults from TV. Ambitious Joyce Maldonado (later Byers) wants to be a theatre director and is staging the school show. She just wants to get out of this “backwards town”. Her fellow pupil Bob Newby is nurturing an unrequited crush on her. He’s a keen amateur broadcaster with his own radio show: “Good morning Hawkins, Indiana!” he yells into the mic. And their classmate Jim Hopper is obsessed with cars and doesn’t get along with his police chief father.
Meanwhile, a new kid has started at school. The troubled Henry Creel has moved to Hawkins with his family in the hope of making a fresh start after he was involved in some sort of unfortunate incident in their previous town. He’s an outsider, like Patty Newby, Bob’s adoptive sister and a character new to the Stranger Things world. The pair bond over a shared love of comics and their sense of being different.
Much will be made of the visual special effects but what really makes this play work is exactly the same thing that makes any play work: the characters and the actors’ portrayal of them.
Joyce is expected by the school to stage the musical, Oklahoma!, as is traditional, but she has other ideas. She’s putting on Dark of the Moon, a strange, real-life play about a “witch boy” who falls in love with a human girl. Henry and Patty find themselves cast in it.
But around town, people’s pets are being horribly killed by something – or someone (a note towards the back of the programme offers the much-needed reassurance that “No animals were harmed in the process of this production”). Bob, Hopper and Joyce set out to find the killer and, through some theatrical contrivances, Joyce’s play becomes key to flushing out the culprit. (The First Shadow might not much resemble Shakespeare but this play-within-a-play plot device is straight out of Hamlet.)
Energetic but reflective
To say more about what actually happens would be to spoil it. Indeed, at times it is difficult to properly take in everything that’s happening on stage. Netflix is sometimes accused of stretching shows out into, say, eight episodes when they might be better served by six. Here, it feels as though there’s enough material for at least two plays.
The First Shadow manages to capture the hectic, adolescent energy of the TV show at its best but does balance that with more reflective moments. There’s also a surprising amount of great comedy and a song-and-dance number that I didn’t see coming. A wide variety of locations – a school locker room, the police station, a sinister laboratory, the woods, a creepy attic – are skilfully evoked and excellent use is made of a revolving stage. The immersive sound design weaves in musical themes and motifs from the series.
Much will be made of the visual special effects and, yes, they are very impressive but what really makes this play work is exactly the same thing that makes any play work, be it a spectacular, big-budget West End extravaganza or a two-hander in a tiny studio theatre: it’s the characters and the actors’ portrayal of them.
There are no weak links in the 35-strong cast but it is worth singling out Isabella Pappas (Joyce), Oscar Lloyd (Hopper), Christopher Buckley (Bob), Louis McCartney (Henry), and Ella Karuna Williams (Patty). Thanks to their skill, we care about these people and we can recognise TV Joyce in stage Joyce, TV Hopper in stage Hopper and so on. This play might well have the same effect on the careers of some of these young performers as the TV show did on the careers of its stars.
There’s also some lovely new detail about the characters. I especially enjoyed Joyce as a political firebrand who carries a copy of the Communist Manifesto around with her – particularly brave in 1950s America – and believes in the power of theatre to effect change.
A show like this is artistically successful if it’s enjoyable in its own right but also provides an authentic-feeling addition to the Stranger Things universe. It ticks both those boxes. On the night I attended, the audience cheered when the lights went down, applauded the prologue and the end of the first act and gave a standing ovation at the end. Does it advance our understanding of the human condition or illuminate any of the eternal verities? Probably not. But it is a great night out filled with thrills, gasps and laughs.
Stranger Things: The First Shadow is booking at the Phoenix Theatre, London, until 30 June 2024
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