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Review - Stranger Things: The First Shadow

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Phoenix Theatre

Playing until 25th August 2024

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Review {AD-PR Invite)

First published on Everything Theatre

Taking place more than twenty years prior to the Stranger Things Netflix television series, this stage production follows the story of Henry Creel (Louis McCartney) and his transformation, exploring his interactions with family and schoolmates. The First Shadow provides a glimpse of this character’s earlier behaviours and how he is shaped into the monster we come to know.

Set as a prequel, it is not essential to have watched the TV show beforehand: it excels as a standalone piece. Two interlinked stories run in parallel: Henry’s development as a teenager as he tests his supernatural powers alongside his growing love interest, Patty Newby (Ella Karuna Williams), and also Joyce Maldonado’s (Isabella Pappas) adventure with friends Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) and James Hopper Jr (Oscar Lloyd) as they investigate the odd pet killings and freakish accidents around town.

The First Shadow sets a solid foundation that complements the main story. Much of Henry’s later behaviours can be attributed to his mother, Virginia’s (Lauren Ward) perception of him and her very questionable parenting. This prequel also sets up the closeness between Joyce, Bob and Hopper Jr in their early years. Through the strange happenings caused by Henry, the three friends delve deeper into Principal Newby (Matthew Pidgeon)’s supposed accident. The writers (The Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne and Kate Trefry) and director (Stephen Daldry) have intricately woven in the parallel stories and how they come together as one.

Despite the strengths of this production, having Joyce, Bob and Hopper Jr being this involved in the Creel family storyline also creates particular challenges. It is well known that these characters survive to the main Stranger Things series, so concern for their safety here, as they undertake reckless investigations, is significantly dampened by foreknowledge. Similarly, they uncover a great deal (even though they arrive at the wrong conclusion), which becomes problematic for the first season of Stranger Things. Henry himself gives a fairly explicit narrative to Joyce that not all is as it seems, so one would expect Joyce to later more quickly make connections between the odd happenings. The First Shadow would also be a good opportunity to further explore Joyce’s relationship with Lonnie Byers (Chase Brown), her eventual ex-husband. Instead, there is limited interaction between the two, and I left the theatre feeling perplexed as to why Joyce would marry Lonnie.

Henry receives a substantial boost to his character. While he appears to have violent tendencies prior to moving to Hawkins, there appears to be two sides to him: one is timid and supportive, particularly towards Patty, and the other cruel. The two sides constantly hold each other in check and unfortunately, the latter prevails. The First Shadow sets up an intriguing premise for Henry and Patty and it would be interesting to see if this storyline is further expanded in the TV series. McCartney gives an exceptionally impactful performance for his stage debut, effortlessly switching between the two sides of Henry, and sending chills down the audience’s spines on multiple occasions.  

This stage production is a visual spectacle. The illusions and visual effects by Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher create a mystical eeriness to the happenings in town, blurring the lines between reality and The Upside Down. Although visually stunning, the extensive use of projections of the Hawkins town landscape is a little jarring. Other than re-enforcing this production’s likely big budget, as a Stranger Things novice, I wasn’t clear on what other function this fulfils.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most major and quality productions of the year, and while many of the occurrences in the story may seem strange, its triumphant success won’t be the strangest thing.


Original Story written by: The Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne, Kate Trefry

Directed by: Stephen Daldry

Set design by: Miriam Buether

Costume design by: Brigitte Reiddenstuel

Lighting design by: Jon Clark

Sound design by: Paul Arditti

Original music by: D.J. Walde

Illusions and visual effects deigned by: Jamie Harrison and Chris Fisher

Choreography by: Coral Messam

Movement direction by: Lynne Page

Produced by: Netflix and Sonia Friedman Productions

Creative Producers: The Duffer Brothers

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