‘Stranger Things: The First Shadow’ is a sprawling maximalist monolith, a gargantuan entertainment that goes beyond being a mere ‘play’. It’s too unwieldy and too indulgent to be a theatrical classic. But nonetheless, this prequel to the Netflix retro horror smash is the very antithesis of a cynical screen-to-stage adaptation.
As overwhelming in scale as as the show’s monstrous Mindflayer, it’s a seethingly ambitious three-hour extravaganza of groundbreaking special effects, gratuitous easter eggs and a wild, irreverent theatricality that feels totally in love with the source material while being appreciably distinct from it.
It’s clearly made by a fan, that being big-name director Stephen Daldry, who used his Netflix connections (he’s the man responsible for ‘The Crown’) to leverage an official collab with the Duffer Brothers, creators of the retro horror smash.
It starts as it means to go on, with pretty much the most technically audacious opening ten minutes of a show I’ve ever seen, as we watch a US naval vessel deploy an experimental cloaking device in 1943, to catastrophic effect. Yes, the sets wobble a bit, and yes, writer Kate Trefry’s dialogue is basically just some sailors bellowing cliches. But we’re talking about watching a giant vessel getting pulled into a horrifying parallel dimension on stage. It is awesome; and when it cut into a thunderous playback of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s iconic electronic score and a full-blown projected credits sequence I was pretty much ready to punch the air screaming.
The technical team deserves more praise than I can adequately give them: particular respect to designer Miriam Buether, video and visual effects designers 59 Productions, and illusion and visual effects designers Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher, but essentially everyone in the groaning credits list deserves extravagant praise.
But there’s a lot more to ‘The First Shadow’ than spectacular horror set-pieces.
At its core, it’s a phantasmagorical tragedy about Henry Creel (Louis McCartney), whose father was the sole survivor of the naval vessel. The rest of the play is set 16 years later, in 1959, where we meet a troubled teenage Henry as he moves to Hawkins, Indiana with his damaged dad and overprotective mum.
If you’ve watched the fourth season of the show you’ll be aware of exactly who Henry is – or rather, what he becomes – but so long as you’re on board with an FX-heavy drama about a boy with supernatural powers, struggling between his best and worst instincts, I don’t think newcomers will have a huge problem here. McCartney gives an excellent performance as Henry, a sensitive young man whose colossal powers would seem to doom him, and yet who still wants to be normal, and who strikes up a genuine friendship with fellow outsider Patty (Ella Karuna Williams).
The story of his fall is both touchingly and gruesomely rendered, and as a lean two-and-a-half-hour chronicle of one man’s descent this would really be something.
Unfortunately, there’s a monumental amount of bloat, of the sort that you get when a story is created by four different writers: that’s the Duffers, ‘Cursed Child’ playwright Jack Thorne, and Trefry herself, who does a solid job of writing it all up, but you feel has been left with a lot of bases she’s required to cover.
I like the TV show, and understand why it was decided that teenage incarnations of its older characters would be included. But it would have generally been better if these were restricted to cameos, rather than giving Hopper (Oscar Lloyd) and Joyce (Isabella Pappas) lengthy subplots that add little. Although it does all tie back to Henry in a tangential fashion, having Lloyd’s Hopper investigate a spate of pet murders as if he were already an actual policeman and not a kid at school is a bit cringe. Pappas’s Joyce being the head of the school drama club works better. But having Hopper and Joyce go out Scooby Doo-ing once weird shit starts happening feels like a pointless sideshow. And the choice of Howard Richardson’s forgotten curio ‘The Dark of the Moon’ as the school play – which you’re unlikely to know, but are exposed to at length – feels like a thoroughly indigestible piece of symbolism.
The zanier stuff also missed the mark for me. Because Henry is a much darker and more tragic character than the kids from the TV show, the wackier high school sequences – and a full-blown musical theatre number! – felt like overegging the pudding. It’s a bleak, sad central story, but I think the writers and co-directors Daldry and Justin Martin feel they need to goof to keep it in line with the TV show, and I’m not convinced they were right.
Some of the show link-ups are great. Patrick Vaill is superb as a fanatical younger version of creepy scientist Doctor Brenner. And Christopher Buckley is the beating heart of the show as the sweet younger incarnation of Bob Newby – frankly a bit annoying as an adult, but beautifully open and vulnerable here (and better integrated into the plot than Hopper and Joyce).
To be clear, if you’re any sort of ‘Stranger Things’ fan and you can afford the ticket, it would be ridiculous for you not to go. ‘The First Shadow’ suffers from dramatic bloat and tonal inconsistency. The biggest frustration with it is the sense that it might have been show of the year with 30 minutes of really ruthless cuts. But you’re not getting another ‘Stranger Things’ stage play any time soon, and the things it does get right, it gets right stunningly well. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close to the Upside Down as you’re going to get without having your head bitten off by a demogorgon.