This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
The horror-meets-mystery genre is a lucrative staple of the streaming services and film, whilst proving much harder for the theatre to nail. Special effects and CGI that wow on the small screen can look clunky on the big stage. Even the hardiest Lloyd-Webber perennial, The Phantom of the Opera, deploys resilient 19th century tropes of flickering candlelight and masks to create its ghostly atmosphere. The Woman in Black, embarking on another national tour this spring, has had a similar durability as, in its own estimation, “the most terrifying theatrical experience in the world”.
Newer audiences may feel that being expected to be blown away by these is a bit like being expected to be excited by their parents’ classic rock albums — they are impressive but dated, and a technological do-over of scary theatre does feels overdue.
Stranger Things: The First Shadow takes on this challenge with gusto and a considerable budget at the Phoenix theatre in a Sonia Friedman production. It arrives on a tide of five-star ratings for its ambition in turning a prequel to the hit Netflix series into an experience packing in audiences of the kind that the commercial West End needs, if it is to thrive at a time when purse strings are stretched and the gogglebox has replaced stage outings for many families.
These “theatre virgins” and twenty-somethings, who watched and loved the Duffer Brothers’ ingenious generational crossover hit, need the reassurance of familiarity with a work from another genre before they will buy a ticket.
Fun fact: over half of the tickets sold are being bought by this demographic, which creates an interesting mix in the audience. The nerds can spot every reference to the parent show — the spirited 1950s kids in the play are the grown-ups in the 1980s-set TV drama where they are played by Winona Ryder, David Harbour and Sean Astin.
And there are those like me who had little idea what was going on and failed to gasp at the reveal at the end (which I will not spoil by repeating), yet were happy enough to enjoy the wild ride of a small-town Walpurgisnacht.
The muddle of themes hardly matters as the story skitters from one breathtaking spectacle to another
The show kicks off with an ill-fated but spectacular attempt by the US military to create an invisibility cloak to hide a ship before whisking us off to Hawkins, Indiana, where the new kid in town is the socially awkward Henry Creel, a waif-like boy played by newcomer Louis McCartney.
Henry is an ill-at-ease conduit to the spirit world who interests scientists doing experiments on behalf of a conglomerate which has some sinister connection with the US government. Henry’s family have moved to Hawkins after he did something terrible in the town they lived in previously, and his Valium-hazed mother’s solution to his worrying behaviour is to commit him into the care of an even more bonkers psychiatrist, Dr Brenner (Patrick Vaill).
Yep, it’s a giddy muddle of themes, but that hardly matters as the story skitters from one breathtaking spectacle to another. We’re transported back to the sexual frustration and jukebox tunes of 1950s High School, albeit in circumstances a lot less cheery than Grease, as preparations for a spooky musical (Dark of the Moon — a real show about a “witch boy” who falls in love with a human girl), to be directed by Joyce Maldonado (Joyce Byers in the TV show) coincide with a spate of violent pet deaths around the town.
Possibly because there is no small degree of hokum here, writers Kate Trefry and Jack Thorne and director Stephen Daldry indulge in a free-flowing episodic approach. Miriam Buether’s design allows for standout thriller moments, such as that which takes place in the illuminated liquor store, neon-lit on the black stage, where the earnest teens try to rescue a scared cat — and the entire set splits, revealing an entrance to something akin to hell.
Echoes of dubious early Cold War experiments on human subjects make some of this melodrama genuinely chilling: at one point, actors in radiation-proof white suits and helmets apply Geiger counters to members of the audience.
There’s a lot of visual wizardry with changes in scene accompanied by blood-red laser framing and some fantastic illusion craft to relish: characters levitate, move in slow motion and even appear to be in two places at once. There are also some extremely grisly deaths.
If the tech behind all this is very “now”, these are also the kind of tricks Victorian theatregoers loved and which inspired Wagner to try to create steam curtains and gaslight images (he once tried to combine the two to disastrous effect).
The First Shadow designers aren’t afraid to raid the treasure trove for special effects: my personal favourite is during the school production, when the electrical wiring goes awry and the candelabra lights of the theatre itself flicker on and off. You would need a stiffer spine than mine not to find yourself clutching the person next to you for comfort.
We know from Hamlet that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio”. Aside from all the supernatural shenanigans, this homage to the tradition of otherworldly interventions in the world of mortals is, at one level, simply a time-honoured intergenerational story of parents adrift from their young.
But its ambition beguiles, and the Demogorgons are satisfactorily terrifying. This may even end up as the award-conquering big show of the year. Stranger things have happened.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe