Review: Stranger Things: The First Shadow


by Mike Matthaiakis

“Stranger Things: The First Shadow” marks Netflix’s spectacular stage debut, delivering an awe-inspiring theatrical rendition of the beloved sci-fi series. The production, as anticipated, is not just a treat for superfans but a captivating experience for anyone intrigued by boundary-pushing theatre that seamlessly blends jaw-dropping special effects with a profoundly relatable human story.

Set predominantly in 1959, the play serves as a prequel to the 1980s-set television series, offering a closer look at the origin story of Henry Creel, who is destined to become Vecna, the ruler of the hellish dimension known as the Upside Down—a pivotal character in the series’ final season. The narrative unfolds Henry’s troubled adolescence, complete with nosebleeds and mysterious powers, as his family relocates to the quaint town of Hawkins, Indiana. The central tension revolves around the desire for normalcy and acceptance, epitomized by characters like Henry, contrasting with rebels like Joyce Maldonado and Jim Hopper, who yearn to break free from the town’s sleepy atmosphere.

The play proves to be an inspired choice for storytelling, both delighting fans with enriched character backgrounds and serving as an accessible prequel for newcomers. The production’s excellence is poised to sell audiences on the unique wonder of theatre, akin to the impact of Sonia Friedman-backed phenomena such as “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Maintaining an air of mystery, the play introduces a spooky enigma that brings together a misfit group of amateur sleuths, including Joyce, the director of a secret subversive school play; Hopper, aka “Junior,” constantly undermined by his bullying cop father; and tech geek Bob, closely resembling the show’s D&D crew. Relationships, particularly parent-child dynamics, play a crucial role, with supernatural elements grounded in psychological themes of fear and trauma, notably linked to war veterans.

Writer Kate Trefry, in collaboration with Jack Thorne and the Duffer Brothers, skillfully captures the series’ blend of horror and humor. Director Stephen Daldry seamlessly combines digital and theatrical magic, creating otherworldly effects without losing sight of the underlying human drama. The cast, led by Isabella Pappas as a spot-on Winona Ryder lookalike portraying Joyce, delivers exceptional performances that bring the characters to life with authenticity and depth.

The production’s sleek design by Miriam Buether, evocative period costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and thoughtfully selected nostalgic and disturbing songs by DJ Walde contribute to the immersive experience. The play’s ability to transport the audience between high school gyms, creepy attics, alternate worlds, and fantasy numbers is facilitated by a speedy revolve, enhancing the storytelling’s dynamic nature.

“Stranger Things: The First Shadow” is not just a play; it’s a mesmerizing journey into darkness, guided by torch beams reminiscent of telling spooky tales around a campfire. As budding director Joyce preaches the power of stories, the play, with its Hamlet-riffing plot points, feels like a groundbreaking new chapter in theatre—an astounding show that truly takes audiences out of this world.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is at the Phoenix Theatre through 25 August.