Netflix’s “Stranger Things” may be heading into its final season, but fans of the sci-fi phenomenon needn’t despair. A new Hawkins-set adventure, “The First Shadow,” is just beginning on London’s West End.
“The First Shadow” takes fans back in time to Hawkins High in 1959, before Jim Hopper (Oscar Lloyd) took in a strange child called Eleven, Joyce Maldonado’s (Isabella Pappas) son went missing and Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) was, well, mauled to death by Demodogs. As the series’ signature ’80s neon and synthesizers transform into leather and rock ’n’ roll, the play (which starts previews on Friday before opening on Dec. 14) promises to immerse audiences even deeper into the mysterious world of “Stranger Things,” thanks to masterful special effects.
“It’s like being in a fucking action film — like being in an episode of ‘Stranger Things,’ but you’re doing it live every night,” Lloyd tells Variety. “It’s such high-energy, fastpaced excitement that it’s just a roller coaster.”
It’s the beginning of November, and Lloyd, Buckley and Pappas are nearing the end of an intensive four-week tech rehearsal. Most plays only need one week, but this, Lloyd says, is a “very technically ambitious and demanding show.” That’s no surprise, given that the special effects team is the same one that developed the awe-inspiring illusions in Broadway’s “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which also premiered on the West End.
“It’s taken a lot of the same design aspect that you see in the show,” Lloyd says. “It has that kind of spooky feel to it.”
Adds Buckley, “With television, you can have a degree of separation. But with this, you’re in it. You can’t escape.”
The play, directed by Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours”) with co-direction from Justin Martin (“Prima Facie,” “Together”), has been in the works for four or five years. During the auditions, the actors didn’t know who they were trying out for, but eventually learned they would be appearing as young versions of Hopper, Joyce and Bob (played in the series by David Harbour, Winona Ryder and Sean Astin).
“The directors said on Day One of the workshops, ‘We’re not interested in impressions,’” Lloyd recalls. “They want us to do our own take on the characters.”
Pappas, who plays Joyce, found that especially difficult as she has long looked up to Ryder. “I rewatched all of ‘Stranger Things’ again, and it freaked me out because I was watching Winona Ryder and thinking, ‘I can’t come anywhere close to doing this character like she does,’” she says. The casting marks a full-circle moment for Pappas, as she was in the running for the role of Max (Sadie Sink) on the TV series almost a decade ago.
“At the audition I was like, ‘This is my second chance. I have to make it happen,’” Pappas says. “I love the show, so it’s amazing to get to work on it, and I relate a lot to Joyce, so it’s a good fit for me to be playing her.”
On playing the younger version of someone as beloved as Hopper, Lloyd adds, “It’s an interesting process, because it’s rare that you have such extensive source material for working on a character — and also even rarer that the source material is them in later life. So you have to reverse it around and think, ‘What was this person like 20 years before you know all this stuff about them?’”
But Lloyd hopes the play will introduce viewers to an entirely new dimension of the character. “When you meet [Jim] in Season 1, he’s pretty traumatized and damaged by the death of his daughter, he’s kind of a functioning alcoholic, has his problems with drugs,” Lloyd says. “Whilst you still have the aspects of that, it was important for me to see a different side to Jim in this play. He’s 18 years old, this is before he’s gone through a lot of that trauma, so we see hopefully a bit more of a happier, more outgoing version of Jim.”
As for the dynamic between the leads, Lloyd jokes that the directors refer to them as “the intrepid trio.”
“It’s very ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Scooby-Doo’ energy between the three of us,” he says. “They’re not your average group of friends. We don’t have a lot in common, we’re often butting heads with each other, we spend most of our time arguing — which is a lot more fun to play.”
Ultimately, the characters’ bond comes from their shared trauma, Buckley adds. “They’re misfits who get put together because of a crazy circumstance,” he says. “And they make the dynamic work, especially toward the end of the play, where they put together an idea and it actually does work.”
Of course, the trio of actors are feeling the heat to live up to fans’ expectations. “There is pressure, because [the characters] are very loved,” Buckley says. But the support of Netflix and show creators the Duffer Brothers, who also developed the story for Kate Trefry’s “The First Shadow” script, has made the task less intimidating.
Right before tech started, the Duffer Brothers came to watch a rehearsal and give feedback, which is when reality set in for Pappas. “I’m not gonna lie, I was really in my head about doing the run-through, because it’s their baby and you’re playing these characters that they created and lived with and have worked with,” she says. “But they were so kind and open to seeing new versions of the characters and the different things that we wanted to try.”
“They seemed really happy with what we were doing,” Lloyd adds. “For them, it’s like you’re letting your kids out into the world and seeing if they can flourish by themselves. And hopefully, we’ll do our dads proud.”