Review: Stranger Things – The First Shadow, Phoenix Theatre

There’s a whole lotta spectacle but not much soul at Stranger Things: The First Shadow, now playing at the Phoenix Theatre

“I’m not a freak! I’m normal”

Stranger Things: The First Shadow blasted into the Phoenix Theatre as one of the year’s final major openings and perhaps not unconnectedly, landed on many a Best Of list. I’d little desire to see it but a £15 rear stalls (and restricted view) seat popping up for a Friday matinee felt enough of a low-stakes investment. I should mention though, I barely made it through the first series of the Netflix show that begat it so chances are I’m really not the target audience for this.

Directed by Stephen Daldy with co-director Justin Martin and written by Kate Trefry from an original story by her, Jack Thorne and the TV show’s creators The Duffer Brothers, it is clear that this is a production with serious Netflix money behind it as a lavish opening scene recreates a full-on maritime disaster with lavish design and effect work indicating the creative desire to go full-scale blockbuster. That said, for all the spectacle on show, there’s not quite enough here to move the soul.

The play is positioned as a prequel to the TV show, set about a generation earlier in the same location of Hawkins, Indiana. Troubled 12-year-old Henry Creel has just moved to town with his family and against the odds, makes a pal in fellow oddball Patty with whom he ends up leading the school play. But Henry has all sorts of unexplained psychic powers and lots of pets in the neighbourhood are mysteriously dying. Elements of late 1950s high school drama thus play out against a growing sci-fi conspiracy thriller.

It’s all…impressive but as I said, there’s little real emotional heart here. Storytelling is mainly on a surface level of schlock and sentimentality rather than true horror; the shocks come from the volume level of Paul Arditti’s sound and the surprises coming out of Miriam Buether’s set supplemented by Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher’s FX design and 59 Productions’ video work. For all this elaborate endeavour though, little really intrigues with the shimmering potential of theatrical magic a la time shifts at the Cursed Child.

Louis McCartney’s Henry and Ella Karuna Williams’ Patty do a decent job with their misfits and whilst Isabella Pappas and Oscar Lloyd also do well as Joyce and Hopper, their beefed-up presence in the story feels tacked on for name recognition from the TV show rather than any dramatic imperative. Patrick Vaill’s sinister Dr Brenner is a corkingly good role though, and Lauren Ward and Michael Jibson bring rare moments of feeling as Henry’s traumatised parents.

An expensive rollercoaster of a play then, that is caught between genuinely doing something new and paying fan service to wildly popular intellectual property. We already have Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for that so I’m not sure that too many casual viewers will be tempted along here at these prices but Stranger Things fans could well find a lot to appeal to them. You do have to wonder though how much story there is left to be milked out of this franchise.

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