Stranger Things: The First Shadow review – this stunning Phoenix Theatre show will turn you upside down

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

This astonishing show turns normal expectations of theatre upside down. Director Stephen Daldry has taken theDuffer Brothers’ Eighties-set Netflix sci-fi hit and magicked it into a spectacular, multimedia prequel, full of enough thrills, scares and knowing nods to please fans and the uninitiated in equal measure.

It’s comparable to the theatrical alchemy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but far more technically sophisticated, pushing monsters into the auditorium while a quintet of assured young lead actors keep things on a – mostly – human scale.

A couple of lip-pursingly unlikely plot twists shunt Kate Trefry’s bulging narrative past the three-hour mark, but it scarcely matters. As a piece of total theatre, this is streets ahead of anything else.

It begins with a pre-prequel suggesting the Philadelphia Experiment of 1943 – a mythical attempt to renderthe USS Eldridge invisible – first breached the wall to another, hellish dimension. I won't spoil it but the design team conjures up a spectacular set-piece onstage.

Then we fast forward to Hawkins, Indiana in 1959 where Joyce Maldonado – played as a harassed mum by Winona Ryder on the TV show, and here as a drily formidable high-schooler by Isabella Pappas – is putting on aschool play.

Isabella Pappas, Christopher Buckley and Oscar Lloyd in Stranger Things: The First Shadow (Manuel Harlan / Netflix)
Isabella Pappas, Christopher Buckley and Oscar Lloyd in Stranger Things: The First Shadow (Manuel Harlan / Netflix)

The authoritarian principal thinks she’s doing Oklahoma! but secretly she’s staging folk horror The Dark of theMoon, about a witch boy in love with a human girl. In the leads she casts the principal’s adopted, mixed-heritage daughter Patty (Ella Karuna Williams) and haunted new boy Henry Creel (Louis McCartney) whose presence tends to make light fittings pop and radios scream with static.

When the cast’s pets start dying horribly, the principal’s son Bob (Christopher Buckley) and police chief Hopper’s unloved boy James (Oscar Lloyd) – both with the hots for Joyce – investigate.

I can’t begin to detail the nerdgasm of references to classic horror and sci-fi, comic books, ham radio and rock ‘n’roll the creators subtly weave together (the story was created by Trefry with the Duffers and Jack Thorne). Or the way they distill the conservatism and paranoia of the Fifties and anticipate the freer Sixties.

I can tell you there is mind-boggling 3D-film imagery, true-crime style newspaper montages, clever use ofdoubles and misdirection, and gruesome physical effects. Williams and McCartney both make impressive stage debuts here, but the latter seems to make Henry disjoint and mutate before our eyes.

The staging adopts the TV series’ red neon colour coding and its ominous theme music. And you can see in theyoung characters’ performances seeds of their older onscreen incarnations, including Patrick Vaill’s thunderingly menacing Dr Brenner.

Equally, you can enjoy this immersive, overwhelming experience, which has a love for live performance at its very core, without having seen a second of the TV show. Daldry, the consummate showman of British culture, has done it again.

Phoenix Theatre, booking to August 25, buy tickets here