New Stranger Things play is “breathtaking” or “a disaster” depending on who you ask

Stranger Things: The First Shadow stage play created by Duffer Brothers, starts late 2023.
Stranger Things: The First Shadow stage play created by Duffer Brothers, starts late 2023. /

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is a new play that just premiered on the London stage. It’s set in the 1950s, decades before the Netflix show, and revolves around young versions of characters like Jim Hopper, Joyce Byers and Henry Creel, aka Vecna. The opening night was a big event attended by stars from the show:

There are plans for the play to come to Broadway at some point down the line. Is The First Shadow worth going to the theater to see? The reviews are rolling in, and while most of them are fairly positive, there are some loud dissenting voices in there. Let’s take a look, starting with the most positive reviews and working our way downwards:

  • The Guardian: “The big surprise about this prequel to the TV series, about high-schoolers who tap into the dangerous world of the Upside Down, is that it is neither derivative nor an exercise in imitation. This is breathtaking theatre with its own arresting imagination.”
  • The Independent: “This isn’t a quiet, quaint, self-consciously theatrical little play. It’s a massive all-out event calculated to thrill fans of the award-winning Netflix series with explosions, thrills, and jumpscares galore – plus a little taste of what’s coming in 2024’s fifth season of the show. But with writer Jack Thorne and director Stephen Daldry on board, it’s also got a surprising level of proper theatre cred for anyone who doesn’t come to it intricately versed in Stranger Things lore.”

Everyone agrees that Stranger Things: The First Shadow is a spectacle. There’s a ton of money up on stage with the special effects and the costumes and such. That said, some critics wonder if the spectacle is covering up for a shallow plot, or worry that the play doesn’t do enough to bring in people who aren’t already familiar with the Netflix show. Even then, they don’t mind too much as long as the play is entertaining:

  • BBC: “A show like this is artistically successful if it’s enjoyable in its own right but also provides an authentic-feeling addition to the Stranger Things universe. It ticks both those boxes. On the night I attended, the audience cheered when the lights went down, applauded the prologue and the end of the first act and gave a standing ovation at the end. Does it advance our understanding of the human condition or illuminate any of the eternal verities? Probably not. But it is a great night out filled with thrills, gasps and laughs.”
  • Express: “Director Stephen Daldry summons all of his theatrical and film-making powers like a latter day Prospero. Together with an army of technicians, illusionists and video designers, he creates an intoxicating cocktail of science fiction and horror that makes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child look like Noddy in Toyland. For anyone unfamiliar with the series, it is likely to prove a bewildering experience.”
  • The Telegraph: “I can’t claim that, as a piece of drama, this is more than high-class hokum but what we get, as spectators, is a game-changing experience, one which combines state-of-the-art video wizardry with the tricks of the theatrical trade – sometimes as simple as roving flash-lights and dizzying stage-revolves. These ensure a suspenseful flow of jaw-dropping coups […] It’s not so much the play, as the unforgettable atmosphere that’s the thing.”

And then we get to the outright bad reviews:

  • The Times: “One of the quainter aspects of the internet is that strange, passionate realm known as fan fiction, where devotees of books, TV shows or films provide their own spin on their favourite works. There’s the same mixture of enthusiasm and gaucheness in this lumbering prequel to the Duffer brothers’ hit Netflix series about supernatural goings-on in 1980s Indiana.”
  • The New York Times: “In its totality, the production is lavish to the point of embarrassment, and the sheer scale of the thing is hard to reconcile with the play’s rather modest intellectual aspirations and lack of originality. One is left simultaneously impressed and a little bewildered. Haven’t television and cinema already got these bases covered? Is this what theatre is for?…Stranger Things: The First Shadow achieves what it sets out to do, and die-hard fans will surely lap it up — but it may well prove to be a death throe. The real spectacle here is that of a franchise eating itself.”

The worst review comes from the New York Post, which calls the play “a huge, insufferable embarrassment” and “a total disaster”:

"This bloated behemoth bears zero resemblance to your favorite binge-watch. What’s strange is that all this money and talent amounts to such a shambles."

Of course they’re planning a Stranger Things trilogy of plays

According to DeadlineThe First Shadow is the first in a planned trilogy of Stranger Things plays. Whether that comes to fruition will depend on how this first play does, but it’s not surprising to hear that they’re planning multiple outings.

Plays like The First Shadow exist awkwardly at the corner of artistry and commerce. So far as artistic mediums go, theater is supposed to be a bit classier than movies or TV, but of course producers still want to make money. And so we have Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, an on-stage sequel to J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally popular book series that was split into two plays, meaning people had to buy two separate, very expensive tickets to see the full story. And now there’s a proposed Stranger Things trilogy, an attempt to lure people back to the theater again and again just as new seasons of the show lure them back to the couch. Are we really expected to believe that Shakespeare could tell the whole of Hamlet in one go but the Stranger Things play needs three parts?

I’m not saying that Stranger Things: The First Shadow won’t be a good time at the theater, just that it’s difficult to separate its artistic merits from its commercial origins. If the play is good, I’ll forget all of that as I’m swept up in the story. But it has a bar to clear, at least for my cynical ass.

Next. The Last of Us and 14 other fantasy/sci-fi shows that won’t be back in 2024. dark

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