I’ve been to see Netflix’s Stranger Things prequel stage play – titled The First Shadow – on London’s West End and, if you’re a fan of the series who's eagerly awaiting Stranger Things season 5, I promise you this is a must-see production.
In fact, even those among you who have yet to experience the Netflix phenomena should consider watching this play. Sure, some subtle nods will be lost on you, but the show holds up on its own and serves as a rock-solid jumping-off-point for you to begin your adventure in Hawkins and the Upside Down.
But before we get much further, I want to put you at ease – there are no spoilers for Stranger Things: The First Shadow in this piece. The only Stranger Things story details I'll discuss are things fans will know before they step into the Phoenix Theatre in London, i.e. where the play is showing – those being, the Netflix series up to and including Stranger Things season 4, and that the play is a prequel – set in 1959 –that shows us Henry Creel before he became Vecna.
There’s a lot I desperately want to talk about and season 5 speculations I'd to share, but those are for another time – certainly not before the play officially opens on December 14. So, if you have a ticket already, or are thinking of trying to get one, you can safely read on.
A balancing act, perfectly performed
I do not envy the task director Stephen Daldry – nor the writers Kate Trefry, Jack Thorne, and the Duffer brothers, or the show’s wider creative team – was set with. Indeed, The First Shadow has a razor-thin tightrope to walk with juxtaposing forces pulling and pushing to knock it off balance.
Heading to my preview screening, I knew to expect familiarity from the Stranger Things play. I wasn't walking to The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Woman in Black, or some other horror performance – yes, I wanted chills and chest-gripping tension, but also to see familiar faces and places, hear the Stranger Things music, and – most importantly – experience the series’ unique brand of fright.
Equally, I didn't want The First Shadow to feel too familiar. If it’s simply a retelling of the story I already knew, then I – and you, dear reader, when you see it – would be left feeling like the visit to the theatre wasn’t worth the effort.
At the same time, the story can’t stray too far from what's been told in one of the best Netflix shows. Hawkins can’t suddenly be too aware of Henry Creel’s abilities and the Upside Down, otherwise why would Joyce and Hopper be so ignorant of the supernatural in 1983, aka when the first season was set and the weird goings-on began in Hawkins?
The play also can’t be too important to the canon. Even with Stranger Things 5 likely a year or two away, most fans of the franchise won’t get to see The First Shadow before it airs – so, the despite there being a big lore reveal in The First Shadow, one that needs addressing in season 5, it can't be a big Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) style story thread that might alienate viewers who don't get the chance to watch the stage play before the show's fifth season debuts on Netflix. Otherwise, Stranger Things will run into the big Marvel and Star Wars problem of forcing people to do the requisite homework before season 5 airs.
That said, despite these potential pitfalls, Stranger Things: The First Shadow treads this tightrope expertly – even throwing in a few somersaults along the way for good measure. It was everything I wanted as a Stranger Things and theater fan and makes for an excellent addition to the Stranger Things mythos.
The first time Hawkins turned Upside Down
With all that housekeeping out of the way, what's Stranger Things: The First Shadow really about? It's a Vecna origin story; the Revenge of the Sith to the Netflix series’ Original Trilogy (seasons 1 through 3), if you will. As Henry Creel / Vecna, Louis McCartney is an imposing presence – a mixture of his performance and some impressive theater magic ensured I was always on edge while he was on stage (and a little concerned he might actually have supernatural abilities).
He stars alongside Ella Karuna Williams, who plays the delightfully bubbly yet timid nerd Patty Newby (adoptive sister of Bob Newby). Together, the pair awaken moments of tenderness from this monster in the making, providing a fresh perspective on season 4’s revelations with their story providing deeper context on Henry and his eventual turn to the *ahem* Dark Side.
Thankfully, the play doesn’t go so far as to make Vecna a sympathetic villain – dodging a trend that feels a tad too played out in modern media. There are more layers and complexity to the character than season 4 led you to believe, but fundamentally the unrelenting evil we are exposed to in the TV series is still at Vecna’s core.
While the story primarily focuses on Henry Creel, we couldn’t return to 1959 Hawkins without seeing younger incarnations of Joyce, Hopper, and fan-favorite Bob, as well as the parents of the show’s D&D party (Dustin, Lucas, and Mike) and the villainous Doctor Brenner.
Channeling aspects of the older versions of the characters we know, and hints of Nancy, Steve, and the Byers boys (Jonathon and Will), Isabella Pappas, Oscar Lloyd, and Christopher Buckley as Nancy, Hopper, and Bob respectively have an onstage dynamic that is instantly recognizable as characters we know and love. It also leaves them room to show us new sides to this trio that expands on our understanding of their motivations both onstage and on the screen.
Through these familiar faces the play sprinkles in references and revelations, but does so deftly. We're never bogged down in an Easter egg fest that ensures The First Shadow isn’t trapped in the, well, shadow of the Netflix series. Yes, the two are connected, but it’s also a standalone piece of theater with its own merits that doesn’t require you to have seen the show before, although I would still recommend it.
If you're in London and have the chance to see Stranger Things: The First Shadow, take it. As I said, this is a must-see for those looking to satiate your Stranger Things fix while we wait for season 5. It’s a visual wonder with some truly spectacular set pieces that left me in awe.
As for recommendations on where I think you should sit in the Phoenix Theatre, I bought tickets for the Stalls, which brought some worthwhile immersion upgrades as, spoilers notwithstanding, there were a few moments where cast members walked through the audience. In short, then, I’d recommend looking at what seats are like on SeatPlan. I won’t say much but some action happens off the ground, and if you don’t have a clear view of the stage you may miss a few moments – SeatPlan shows you images of what the view looks like from different seats so you know if your view will be clear or not.