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Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

For years – and by years, I’m going as far back as when the Willy Russell play Blood Brothers was at the Phoenix Theatre – a friendly seller of The Big Issue would direct confused patrons looking at closed doors to the theatre on Charing Cross Road to the actual entrance around the corner on Phoenix Street. There’s been some refurbishment work, and so I found myself being redirected to a new entrance and bar area. It’s never, at least not for me, the primary reason for attending the theatre, but it’s worth pointing out because the venue has done a good job.

Louis McCartney (Henry Creel), Patrick Vaill (Dr Brenner) - Photo by Manuel Harlan.
Louis McCartney (Henry Creel), Patrick Vaill (Dr Brenner) – Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is, apparently, a prequel. I say ‘apparently’ – it definitely is a prequel, though as I have never seen a single episode of the television series Stranger Things. (I never had a Netflix subscription, not even in lockdown.) It doesn’t matter, therefore, if you’ve seen every episode, or none at all – this is a show that goes back, so to speak, before the beginning, which is a different experience to the show a fellow theatregoer compared this one to, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, just a few minutes away.

Such comparisons are understandable in the sense that there is some stunning stagecraft to enjoy – most people in the audience, as you can imagine, had at least some previous exposure to Stranger Things, and yet gasps of awe and wonder (and, purely for narrative reasons, disgust) could be heard as this stage production presumably replicates similar scenes seen on television. Mind you, I wasn’t as absorbed in the storyline as I was when I saw the Harry Potter play, and the three hours running time in this show felt more than the five hours (two and a half hours in two parts) I spent watching Cursed Child, which just flew (pardon the expression) by.

It is, particularly from the front stalls, a sensory experience – there were even certain smells that lingered after a scene change. But if there was meant to be an element of surprise or shock from time to time, these were dulled and blunted by such a huge and extended build-up, with swelling sounds and music – which, commendably, never drowns out any dialogue – to the point that one instinctively knows something very sudden and ‘scary’ (inverted commas mine) is about to happen: when it does, and it always does, it’s as predictable as a lying parliamentarian. In the meantime, quite frankly, it’s a bit like waiting for a bus.

Louis McCartney, making his professional stage debut as Henry Creel, has excellent stage presence, even if what he does in terms of supposed paranormal activity is repeated so often it gradually loses its dramatic effect with each iteration. The play doesn’t exactly shy away from stereotypes, with policemen who lack intellect, students who are either bright or athletic but for some reason can’t be both, and Henry’s mother Virginia (Lauren Ward), who evidently loves her offspring but struggles to connect with him.

The earlier scenes, in particular, have a distinct flavour of an American small town where ‘everyone’ knows, more or less, everyone else. It doesn’t take long for word to get around, in a show set before the mobile phone era, if anybody does so much as neglect to show up at church on a Sunday morning. The main science fiction plot wasn’t nearly as intriguing to me as a couple of the subplots, especially Victor Creel’s (Michael Jibson) post-traumatic stress disorder – as it would be called these days – in the aftermath of witnessing atrocities on the frontline in the Second World War. Given the popularity of the television show – the fourth series has clocked up over one billion viewing hours on Netflix – I suspect expectations are high for this stage adaptation. It’s not bad, but

I drifted off on occasion, and still managed to easily follow proceedings, which to me is indicative of how it could be streamlined and speeded up.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Hawkins, 1959: a regular town with regular worries. Young Jim Hopper’s car won’t start, Bob Newby’s sister won’t take his radio show seriously and Joyce Maldonado just wants to graduate and get the hell out of town. When new student Henry Creel arrives, his family finds that a fresh start isn’t so easy… and the shadows of the past have a very long reach.

Brought to life by a multi-award-winning creative team, who take theatrical storytelling and stagecraft to a whole new dimension, this gripping new adventure will take you right back to the beginning of the Stranger Things story – and may hold the key to the end.

Netflix and Sonia Friedman Productions present
By Kate Trefry
Original story by The Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne & Kate Trefry
Based on the Netflix Series, Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers
The Duffer Brothers act as creative producers, with 21 Laps Entertainment as associate producer.

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