Review: Onstage, the ‘Stranger Things’ Franchise Eats Itself

As theatergoers took their seats, a buttery waft of popcorn in the auditorium was an indicator of what was to come. “Stranger Things: The First Shadow” — a spinoff of the hit Netflix series, “Stranger Things” — brings a high-octane, TV-movie sensibility to the stage, pummeling the audience with horror-show frights and sensory overload: eerie smoke effects, mind-boggling levitations, scary vocal distortions reminiscent of “The Exorcist” and noise — so much noise.

Directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot: The Musical”; “The Crown”) and written by Kate Trefry and Jack Thorne in collaboration with the TV show’s creators, the Duffer brothers, the show runs at the Phoenix Theater, in London, through Aug. 25, 2024. It’s a gaudy, vertiginous fairground ride of a play, exactly what you’d expect from a show co-produced by Netflix: Cheap thrills, expensively made.

“Stranger Things: The First Shadow” is billed as a prequel to the Netflix series, which is set in the fictitious town of Hawkins, In., during the mid-1980s. The location is the same, but the year is 1959, and the play tells the origin story of Henry Creel, who appears as a malevolent sociopath in Season 4. We meet him here as a troubled, withdrawn adolescent (played with great aplomb by Louis McCartney) burdened with psychic, clairvoyant and telekinetic powers of unknown provenance.

Henry, a newcomer to Hawkins, strikes up a tentative friendship with another oddball, Patty Newbie, played with a winning blend of naïve compassion and halting self-doubt by Ella Karina Williams. The two youngsters bond over their shared, deeply uncool, love of comic books and, somewhat improbably, land the lead roles in their high-school musical. When several of its cast members find their household pets mysteriously killed, Henry appears to be implicated. His peers take it upon themselves to investigate, and stumble, “Blair Witch”-style, into a baroque nightmare.

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