Review: Stranger Things - The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre ★★★★★

Review: Stranger Things – The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre ★★★★★

So much better than it has any need to be, Stranger Things: The First Shadow is a bravura piece of blockbuster theatre which breathes electric life into the West End play repertoire.

It’s hard not to have certain expectations of a show like Stranger Things: The First Shadow. A prequel to the hit Netflix show, this is a high-profile tie-in which, let’s face it, smacks of an opportunity for producers to cash in on a ready-made audience. We’ve been here before of course, with other IPs – and while the Palace Theatre down the road continues to host the two-part behemoth that shall not be named, there have been uncountable underwhelming attempts to bring screen to stage. Often the goal seems simply to be making some cash without ruining the source material – and if the box office is big enough, to hell with the latter!

Review: Stranger Things - The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre ★★★★★ 1

Thankfully – miraculously – Stranger Things: The First Shadow is a gleaming beacon of triumph. Efficiently packed into a thrilling three hours, this is a show which somehow both succeeds as a standalone piece of theatre, and also meaningfully contributes to the already established mythology of the tv series. This is a play which masterfully layers references to people, places and things already familiar to Stranger Things fans, whilst also giving the cast something fresh and original to work with. The cast are exemplary, with Isabella Pappas (as Joyce Maldonado), Christopher Buckley (as Bob Newby) and Oscar Lloyd (Jim Hopper) worthy of particular praise. Pappas and Lloyd get their performances spot-on, channeling the characters we know from the TV show but steering well clear of impersonation, while Buckley is goofily charming in the fleshing out of a figure whose screen time as an adult is limited.

Review: Stranger Things - The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre ★★★★★ 2

Writer Kate Trefry – working from a story conceived with Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers, and Jack Thorne – has delivered a script full of heart and humour as well as show-stopping set pieces which, under Stephen Daldry’s direction, is paced to near perfection. The special effects and stage illusions are the best you’ll see, and the stage and sound design unimpeachable. That would all count for a lot less, though, without a compelling central performance – and, on our visit, swing Calum Ross delivered an astoundingly assured performance as Henry Creel, newly arrived in 1959 Hawkins and the catalyst not only for proceedings in The First Shadow, but for the entire Stranger Things universe. Ross is a revelation (in a role usually played by Louis McCartney), nimbly pirouetting between beguiling naivety and trembling anger.

Go see The First Shadow if you’re a Stranger Things fan – but go if you’re not, too. This is a stunningly good production, thrilling and comforting in equal measure, eschewing the temptation to play it safe and instead delivering a magnificent coup de theatre,