Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Phoenix Theatre London | REVIEW

Sunday 17 December 2023

Stranger Things: The First Shadow
Phoenix Theatre 

As someone who ventured into the realm of Stranger Things: The First Shadow without much prior experience with the series, aside from watching a few episodes and a recap, I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly captivated by this spectacular supernatural spectacle. The Duffer Brothers, with Jack Thorne and Kate Trefry have crafted a story that effortlessly drew me into the mysterious world of Hawkins, Indiana, even as a newcomer to the Stranger Things universe.

From the very first applause inducing scenes, I found myself immersed in the gripping narrative that skilfully combines elements of suspense, nostalgia, and the supernatural. The show's ability to seamlessly introduce me to its characters and the intricacies of their relationships made it easy to connect with the story, and I was quickly invested in the fates of these intriguing personalities.

The prequel introduces both beloved characters and fresh faces, each receiving substantial development and individuality. The performances are exceptional, characterised by universally nuanced and emotionally charged portrayals. Louis McCartney, in his striking West End debut as Henry Creel, delivers a chilling performance that combines twisted actions with an alarming charm. McCartney's masterful physicality, full of spasms and contortions, adds an extra layer of intensity to the role- I can only imagine how much physio he'll need during the run! Isabella Pappas embodies Joyce with fierce brilliance, seamlessly incorporating Winona Ryder's iconic traits while infusing the character with her own spin. Pappas creates a captivating, headstrong persona that garners unwavering support. Alongside her, Oscar Lloyd portrays James Hopper Jr. with suave charisma, delivering witty one-liners and exuding an aura that captivates throughout.

The brilliance of this show lies in the meticulous attention and craftsmanship dedicated to shaping the intricate backstories of every character. Each member is endowed with distinct intentions and personality traits, allowing for intrigue at every turn. There isn't a single weak link to be discovered, but special recognition is deserved for the performances of Christopher Buckley as the endearing Bob Newby and Michael Jibson, who delivers haunting moments as the tormented Victor Creel. Max Harwood as Alan Munson, injects copious amounts of humour, energy, and vitality into the narrative, fashioning a persona that practically begs for its own enthralling spin-off storyline; whilst Patrick Vaill brings eerie menace to the stage as Dr Brenner.

In the hands of Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, the play unfolds like a blooming flower, or more aptly, the opening mouth of a demogorgon. It moves seamlessly between the whirlwind of action and the rich tapestry of each thoughtfully crafted scene. High-school hallways and bathrooms, the mundane backdrop of everyday life, transform into breathtaking alternate worlds in the blink of an eye, all thanks to the nimble touch of Miriam Buether's set design. Jon Clark's lighting is like a choreographed dance, shifting between mysterious shadows and warm sunlight, mirroring the transformative journey of the characters.

The story takes a deep dive into the shadows, embracing a genuinely dark undertone with jumps and eerie sounds reminiscent of horror films, all expertly blended into the production by Paul Arditti's exceptional sound design. Yet, within the darkness, there's a contrasting brightness—a nostalgic, retro Americana that permeates the air. Sprinkled with snippets of song, it adds layers of emotion and complexity to this multidimensional theatrical experience, making it a journey that feels both supernatural and believable.

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is a testament to the storytelling prowess of its creators. As someone unfamiliar with the series, I can confidently say that this instalment stands alone as a brilliant and engaging piece of theatre. It has ignited my curiosity about the series as a whole, and I am now eager to explore the it to uncover the mysteries that follow this captivating chapter. Whether you're a seasoned fan or a newcomer like myself, this show is a spectacle that you must see. Full of drama, amazing performances and genuine sincerity, it's a Creel-y Creel-y great piece of theatre.

Reviewed on Friday 15th December 2023 by Olivia Mitchell
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

{AD PR Invite- tickets gifted in exchange for honest review}