Critics Have Had Their Say On The Long-Awaited Stranger Things Play The First Shadow

The prequel play has now opened in London's West End. So... is it any good?
Stranger Things: The First Shadow is now open in London's West End
Stranger Things: The First Shadow is now open in London's West End
Manuel Harlan/Netflix

For any Stranger Things fans growing impatient for the show’s fifth and final season, a trip to London could well be on the cards.

Spin-off play Stranger Things: The First Shadow made its official debut on the West End on Thursday night, and it’s already receiving absolutely glowing reviews.

Set in the same Indiana town as the hit Netflix sci-fi drama, this prequel production takes place mostly in the late 1950s, and introduces a host of new characters alongside younger versions of some of the show’s staple figures.

After the first official performance, The First Shadow was met with an absolute wave of five and four-star reviews, which laud the special effects as well as the Stranger Things spin-off’s cast.

Even those critics who were cynical as to whether the production was merely a “cash-in” on Stranger Things’ popularity have praised its spectacle – although reviewers can’t seem to agree on whether or not it’s worth seeing for people who’ve never watched the Netflix drama before.

Isabella Pappas as Joyce Maldonado, Oscar Lloyd as James Hopper, Jr. and Christopher Buckley as Bob Newby pictured during rehearsals
Isabella Pappas as Joyce Maldonado, Oscar Lloyd as James Hopper, Jr. and Christopher Buckley as Bob Newby pictured during rehearsals
Manuel Harlan/neTFLIX

Here’s a selection of what critics had to say about Stranger Things: The First Shadow (and scroll to the end for some of the more harsh reviews)...

“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.”

“This astonishing show turns normal expectations of theatre upside down. Director Stephen Daldry has taken the Duffer 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.”

Audiences are buffeted by wind, coated in haze, subjected to bloody scenes of gory panic, transported into mysterious realms, and made to witness huge set-pieces. All within the first four minutes. No one has phoned it in with this production [...] Everything is dialled up to 11.”

“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.”

Much will be made of the visual special effects and, yes, they are very impressive but what really makes this play work is exactly the same thing that makes any play work, be it a spectacular, big-budget West End extravaganza or a two-hander in a tiny studio theatre: it’s the characters and the actors’ portrayal of them.”

“It’s not just the ideal control of light, sound stings and alarming visions that impresses. Netflix has clearly emptied its coffers here, but it’s not the budget on display, it’s the imaginative flair used to create astonishing fluidity. The story comes in bits but the show makes you feel everything is in its rightful place, leading inexorably into the truth behind the darkness.”

The First Shadow is set decades before the events of Stranger Things
The First Shadow is set decades before the events of Stranger Things
Manuel Harlan/Netflix

“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.”

City AM (4/5)

“This shiny three-hour-long transplant looks every penny of its eye-watering cost. After four televised seasons the Stranger Things phenomenon arrives to the stage, and the good news is it’s an absolute riot even if you haven’t seen the televised show.”

iNews (4/5)

“While it might be easy to be cynical (it’s impossible to ignore the fact this play is fundamentally a fan-servicing cash cow), it’s just as easy to give into the playfulness of it all […] The First Shadow is light on plot detail and spends no time pandering to those who need exposition. But who cares? The stagecraft is phenomenal, and the near non-stop razzle dazzle distracts from any lack of detail or clarity in the storyline.”

“Yes, it’s Netflix milking a brand. Yes, it’s the West End indulging in a screen favourite instead of promoting something new. But it’s thrillingly done – magic and dramatic.”

Express (4/5)

“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.”

Louis McCartney and Ella Karuna Williams on the set of Stranger Things: The First Shadow
Louis McCartney and Ella Karuna Williams on the set of Stranger Things: The First Shadow
Manuel Harlan/Netflix

“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?”

Time Out (3/5)

“The First Shadow suffers from dramatic bloat and tonal inconsistency. The biggest frustration with it is the sense that it might have been show of the year with 30 minutes of really ruthless cuts. But you’re not getting another Stranger Things stage play any time soon, and the things it does get right, it gets right stunningly well. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close to the Upside Down as you’re going to get without having your head bitten off by a demogorgon.”

The Times (2/5)

“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.”

“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.”

Stranger Things: The First Shadow is now on at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End.


What's Hot