The Southwark Playhouse has something of a track record when it comes to musicals – one of its more recent runs (three to be precise in 2020, 2021 and again in 2022) was Operation Mincemeat, now transferred to the West End. I would be amazed if the same fate was not in store for Stranger Sings.
So, you will recall – and, if you don’t, best leave this show alone as you won’t have a clue what’s going on – the Netflix cult hit Stranger Things. Quite a cast, riveting to start with though, let’s face it, it did at times take itself just a bit too seriously. Not here. Re-imagined (quite brilliantly) by writer Jonathan Hogue and director Ellis Kerkhoven, this is a spoof not just on this series but on the time (the 80s) when it was set and the whole sci-fi genre.
Justin Williams has created a great set in this tiny space. Joyce’s living room has an ancient TV set, an alphabet scrawled on the wall and flickering lights through which she communicates with her son Will who is (and I mean this in the most literal sense) a Muppet. At the back is the entrance to the sinister clinic from which Eleven escapes and it doubles as the gateway to the Upside Down world from which a Demogorgon will eventually emerge as Barb’s lover. So, it’s Stranger Things (small town America – Hawkins, Indiana, to be precise where nothing bad ever happens) but not quite as we know it.
The characters, though, are totally recognisable. As Joyce, Verity Power was hilariously unhinged and had a very funny mini-scene as Winona Ryder (the original Joyce) sulking about not getting an Emmy. Anna Amelia was a suitably heartless Nancy (the cool girl at school) and morphed effortlessly into a properly weird Eleven with a tremendous final dance battle against the Demogorgon. Ally Kennard was the laidback lawman Hopper with, according to the sulky Winona/Nancy, only one facial expression and, boy, did he make that work (in the original, Hopper was nominated for an Emmy, hence Winona’s sulks). Philippa Leadbetter was a truly magnificent Barb and brought the house down on at least three occasions.
It wasn’t, though, just the original series being spoofed. There were hilarious takes on the 80s in general and the films of the time – ET, Edward Scissorhands, Rocky, Neverending Story and there was the occasional light sabre prop. Eighties’ sexism was pilloried throughout the evening. There was a great moment when Eleven was told she would have to be like a girl to fit in at school. “But I am a girl.” At which point she is handed a blonde wig with the words: “Yes, but this is a red state”. It’s one of the many moments when the actors are completely in character but tipping off the audience with a knowing wink. We are all in on the jokes.
This is, above all, an ensemble piece and the number of roles played by most of the actors (not to mention the number of wigs) was phenomenal. Alfie Doohan, for instance, managed to combine high school heartthrob Steve (with a Wham! hairdo) with loopy Jonathan and, wearing a white mad scientist wig, evil Dr Brenner. The cast is just ten people and I lost count of how many roles they played between them.
Hogue has contrived a show here that is, while having plenty of laughs at his original source material, still a homage to the story of the nerdy boys and their adventures. The songs are terrific, the dancing (and how do they do that in this tiny space?) is great and the comedy timing of every one of the cast was spot on. An electric evening (flickering lights included).
Stranger Sings runs at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) until 6 January. For more information, and for tickets, please visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.