The exploding rat was a surprise.
But this theatrical prequel to the Duffer Brothers’ hit Netflix series about the strange events in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, is stuffed with things that go smack in your face.
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.
Due to the actions of a human experimentation facility, an interdimensional hole – called the Upside Down – has been opened through which strange beings emerge into the human world, infecting them and creating mayhem and murder.
The play is an origin story of how the weirdness of the Upside Down began – and who began it.
Chief culprit is Henry Creel (Louis McCartney), a teenage oddball who seems to be walking static and can make things float into the air or break themselves into pieces. He is not the most popular boy in school.
When he finds himself attracted to another outsider, Patty Newby (Ella Karuna Williams) – an orphan whose adoptive parents are fiercely protective of her – things change from teenage hormonal events to something much stranger and spectacular.
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The setting is 1959 Atomic Age USA when rock ‘n’ roll swept through the suburbs, teenagers rebelled against bewildered parents, fathers suffered from Second World War shell-shock and comic book heroes like Wonder Woman became role models.
Using vertiginous videos and film inserts as well as illusions of smoky, tentacled aliens, the play – written by Kate Trefry from a story by the Duffer Brothers and Jack Thorne – riffs around generational conflict and
science fiction paranoia.
Trading off the Red Scare of the 1950s and the shifting tectonic plates of Western culture, Daldry and his crew throw everything into the mix including a razzle dazzle dance sequence. This is Theatre of Sensation, Grand Guignol for the modern age.
● Phoenix Theatre, London WC2, until August 25, 2024; Tickets: 0333 009 6690.
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