mon 17/06/2024

Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Phoenix Theatre review - formidable stagecraft unlocks new depths to the popular series | reviews, news & interviews

Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Phoenix Theatre review - formidable stagecraft unlocks new depths to the popular series

Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Phoenix Theatre review - formidable stagecraft unlocks new depths to the popular series

The Netflix hit broadens its beguiling story with this thrilling, high-powered stage production

Evil in the making: Louis McCartney as Henry Creel, and Patrick Vaill as Dr BrennerManuel Harlan

Stranger Things has shown us over four seasons that the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down can be the seat of many things: terror, mystery, camaraderie, compassion. As it turns out, it can spawn great theatre, too, for Stephen Daldry’s much-anticipated stage production of the prequel to the Netflix mega-hit has finally summoned its demonic energy to take the West End by storm.

In this intensely cinematic and technically stunning show, a spirited ensemble breathes ambitious life into a villain origin story that feels at once epic and intimate – and with no shortage of wow factors.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow takes us to 1959, 27 years before the events of the TV series. Here, in the town of Hawkins, Indiana, we witness teenager Henry Creel’s (Louis McCartney) transformation from a troubled, haunted soul to a figure poised on the cusp of sheer evil, who will eventually turn into the fearsome monster Vecna, the franchise’s chief antagonist. Created by the Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne, and Kate Trefry, this layered origin story couples its quintessential outsider with another one: Henry’s classmate Patty (Ella Karuna Williams), an adopted girl of colour who strikes up an unlikely romance with him and becomes an unwitting accomplice to his descent into darkness. Through its multiple plots, themes of belonging, conformity, and ‘normalcy’ are gently interwoven into this mid-century tale of a small American town birthing its own worst enemy.

Henry, however, is not the play’s only character with which the viewers of the original series would be familiar. Some of the major adult figures in the TV show are featured here as adventurous high schoolers: Jim Hopper (Oscar Lloyd), Joyce Moldano (Isabella Pappas), and Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) (all pictured below) team up to shed light on the mysterious animal killings unsettling Hawkins, and to protect their town from the newly arrived Creel family. Meanwhile, the Hamlet-esque incorporation of a play-within-a-play directed by Joyce, and its use as a ploy to catch the conscience of a suspected baddie, provides The First Shadow with a surprisingly tongue-in-cheek backbone.Kate Trefry’s script is cinematic on multiple fronts, with brief scenes frequently cutting into one another, and an eclectic assortment of tones striving for amiable coexistence. Some of the scene transitions are strategically buttressed by documentary-like video projections, and there is plenty of awe-inspiring visual effects and stage trickery (think spider invasions, metamorphosing spirits, people suspended in air), designed with aplomb by Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher. There are moments when the central arc of this prequel is muted by its subsidiary storylines, but the pace of the proceedings virtually never lags: hardly a scene passes without jolting us with an impressive bit of stagecraft or a disturbing shift in mood.

Miriam Buether’s immensely agile and airy set design relies on a central revolve and sliding panels to evoke a wide array of settings with minimal fuss and maximal effect. Whether we are in the realistically rendered hallways of Hawkins High (pictured below) or in the watery realms of Henry’s mind, the effect is one of irresistible immersion. John Clark’s incisive lighting – alternating between ambient power and neon-only emphasis – is indispensable to the production’s visual character, whose sustained fluidity is a supreme achievement to behold. Resonant, action-tinged sound effects (designed by Paul Arditti) plunge us further into a filmic environment whose distinctly theatrical realization before our eyes adds to its special charm.Stephen Daldry, joined by his co-director Justin Martin, orchestrates this massive undertaking with sharp momentum. Even though Trefry’s script feels a touch schematic and diffuse at times, the direction succeeds in presenting a punchy, stimulating whole that helps the production earn its three-hour runtime. Coral Messam’s choreography and Lynne Page’s movement direction, especially foregrounded in a musical dream sequence and during the high schoolers’ own play, help propel the action with captivating force. A piece of this nature and length would likely benefit from a more emphatic, spectacular climax, but a chilling final scene memorably solidifies the link between this tale and the subsequent matter of the TV series.

Led by a riveting McCartney as the vulnerable, possessed Henry, the ensemble delivers cohesive performances aligned with the show’s boldly contoured, mannered characters. Among the supporting cast, Patrick Vaill is forcefully monochromatic as Dr Brenner; Michael Jibson presents a quietly agonized father to Henry; and Lauren Ward is by turns ruthless and despairing as Henry’s morally ambivalent mother.

With its bracing theatricality, The First Shadow heralds a new scale of ambition and storytelling for London theatre’s now-customary attraction to IP from other media. This is formidable, engaging theatre that is in productive dialogue with the resources of the screen, both narrative and formal. And if the enduring popularity of the TV series is any sign, then the odds are in favour for The First Shadow’s longevity in the West End.


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