Can Stranger Things replicate Harry Potter and save the West End?

Is it a musical?” was Kate Trefry’s first thought when Matt and Ross Duffer, the sibling duo behind the Netflix horror hit, Stranger Things, asked her to write the script for a new stage adaptation. “Now I understand how obnoxious that question is,” laughs Trefry, speaking over Zoom on a break from back-to-back rehearsals for that same play, which opens this week in London’s West End.

The idea of a Stranger Things play was first floated five years ago as a “mad fantasy” by director Stephen Daldry, whose smash hits on stage include An Inspector Calls, Billy Elliot and The Inheritance and who is helming this new stage production. Even producer Sonia Friedman, renowned for making the impossible possible in productions such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, said Daldry’s proposal had been a “curveball”. After all, how does one bring the dark, CGI-rendered underworld of Stranger Things to the stage without losing any of its power – or its chills? How does one keep it exciting and fresh?

To the latter question, the answer was simple: write something new. “No one was interested in doing an adaptation of an existing season or episode,” says Friedman. “It would have been a bit weird and a bit like a parody.” Set in 1959 as a prequel, Stranger Things: The First Shadow functions as an origin story for the villain of season four, Vecna, aka Number One aka Henry Creel (portrayed in the series by Jamie Campbell Bower and in the play by Louis McCartney). A fleet of new characters is also introduced, namely Patty Newby (sister of season two’s beloved martyr Bob) alongside returning fan favourites such as young Hopper, Joyce, and Bob – all played by relative newcomers.

“I’d never written a play before,” says Trefry, who was brought on to develop a first draft produced by the Duffer brothers and Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne. “I haven’t even seen that many plays and I don’t know the medium or the form at all.” (Trefry also happened to be “gigantically pregnant” at the time, she laughs.) “But they needed somebody who was really plugged into the tone and the mythology – and also somebody who could connect it to the previous seasons, so I was the weirdly unique piece that fit the puzzle.”

Since 2016, and now spanning four seasons and seven years (a fifth, final season is in development), Stranger Things has become the most-watched English-language show in Netflix’s history, capable of creating household names of its child stars and catapulting a decades-old song like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” to the top of the charts. It’s not hard to see why the show has been so successful. Stranger Things is the age-old story of good versus evil, set within the irresistibly nostalgic 1980s world of bowl cuts and leg warmers, and told through an ensemble kid cast as cute as they are empathetic. Not to mention the monsters – genuinely scary, immaculately rendered creatures with rows of teeth and sinewy bodies that set the series apart from its more kid-friendly rivals. Its phenomenal success means spin-offs were always inevitable, but a stage play? That’s unexpected.

Here is where things get interesting. What makes First Shadow unique is the way the play feeds both off and into the Stranger Things you see on Netflix. “If you think of any stage adaptation of a TV show or film or a book, the story has always completed its narrative and then theatre makers pick it up and run with it, explore it or expand it,” says Friedman. “But we’re working with the same writers who are writing season five so it’s informing the play, and the play is informing the show. They’re very interlinked in that sense.”

Seeing First Shadow is certainly not a prerequisite for enjoying season five, which is expected next year. “We spent 100 million years crafting this thing so that you can watch it without having ever seen an episode of Stranger Things before,” says Trefry. “And if you do watch the play, it will amplify your experience of season five.” Was she set any boundaries in terms of what she could and couldn’t write? “My mandate was: write the show with whatever you want, and we’ll tell you if we can do it or not. I really pushed the limit on what I thought they could do and shockingly the stuff I thought in no way would be possible was the stuff they went for in the end.” There is a strict embargo on talking about the actual contents of the script. “But you’ll know within the first 15 minutes of the play exactly what I’m talking about.”

Stranger Things is as loved by fans for its visual spectacle (read: gruesome death scenes and deliciously disgusting monsters) as it is for its evocative storytelling. It’s hard to envisage how any stage production could possibly replicate the spine-tingling chills of the TV series, but theatre has routinely proven itself capable of surprising us – and scaring us. Just look at The Woman in Black. Or the Cursed Child. Rowling’s production was praised for its onstage sorcery, brought to life with sleight-of-hand tricks that call back to the golden age of Victorian stage illusions.

Isabella Pappas, Christopher Buckley, and Oscar Lloyd as young Joyce, Bob, and Hopper in ‘The First Shadow’

(Manuel Harlan)

First Shadow takes a different, less subtle route. Alongside Daldry, the creative team is formidable. Among them is Leo Warner whose company, 59 Productions, is in charge of video design and visual effects; his team was behind the spectacular 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony devised by Danny Boyle. “There is an expectation set by the extraordinary visual world that already exists on Netflix,” Warner says. “And we can’t fall below that, which is daunting but at the same time, we’re not particularly interested in effects for effects’ sake. Technology is always in the background of what we do.”

Still, the Mind Flayer posed a particular challenge. On screen, it is depicted as a colossal, spider-like creature, made up of shadowy black particles that organise themselves into tornado-like tentacles capable of enveloping one’s mind and soul in darkness. “I spend my days and nights thinking about the Mind Flayer… which is fun,” jokes Warner. “We all have our own Mind Flayer and this one is quite literally mine. But if we’ve done our jobs properly, fans won’t be disappointed.”

I spend my days and nights thinking about the Mind Flayer

Leo Warner of 59 Productions

The West End, still in the throes of its post-Covid recovery, is surely crying out for a cult hit such as Stranger Things. It certainly helps matters in the risk department that the show’s dedicated fan base means selling tickets shouldn’t be too great a problem. Friedman hopes that First Shadow, like Cursed Child, will bring in new theatregoers. “If they have a fantastic, surprising, unique experience – one they can’t get at home watching it on their iPads, hopefully they’ll go on to see other shows,” she says.

Louis McCartney as Henry Creel in ‘The First Shadow’

(Manuel Harlan)

Since opening in 2016, Cursed Child has transferred to Broadway, Tokyo, Germany, Australia and North America. Does Friedman have the same grand ambitions for First Shadow? “This is the here and now – who knows?” she says. “My job is to support the team and get the best version of this production ready for mid-December, then we’ll see what happens.” Friedman is similarly vague about whether the show will stay on in the West End long-term. “I can’t say,” she says. “We will stay as long as we feel we can stay. There’s no fixed plan.”

The audience reaction so far has been phenomenal. Gasps are a frequent occurrence – as are screams. “It’s very gratifying,” smiles Warner. “It’s seldom in theatre when you have multiple moments that people are gasping or screaming.” Whether they’re die-hard Stranger Things acolytes or they’ve never seen an episode before, the one thing everyone agrees on, Trefry says, “is it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen”.

How did Vecna become Vecna? ‘The First Shadow’ tells the origin story of Henry Creel aka Number One

(Manuel Harlan)

It’s a good sign for Trefry who is starting to feel the pressure. “Not in a bad way,” she says. “The pressure is actually kind of wonderful. In the writers’ room for the show, we always joke about serving the realm because we’re all dorks and we watch Game of Thrones, and ultimately all I want to do is serve the realm and make something meaningful and satisfying to people who have been champions of the show.” Time will only tell – if not the theatregoers themselves, who are encouraged to keep the secrets of the show to themselves. “It’s not often in life we’re surprised anymore!” says Warner. “Why give up that privilege?”

‘Stranger Things: The First Shadow’ opens on 14 December at the Phoenix Theatre London