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Under the spell of the franchise

From Harry Potter to Stranger Things, adaptations of major franchises are lucrative for theatres. But do they push out original productions?
December 6, 2023

Cambridge Circus, the circular intersection in London’s West End, stands like a redbrick amphitheatre. In his spy novels John le Carré placed the headquarters for British intelligence just off “The Circus”, but nowadays the strongest cultural footprint is that of JK Rowling’s teenage wizard, whose name emblazons the frontage of the 1,400-capacity Palace -Theatre. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been running at the Palace since July 2016; Potter souvenir franchises litter the surrounding shopping streets. Warner Bros, who own the film rights, have trademarks plastered over the building.

British theatre has always been partial to a blockbuster franchise. Hamlet owed its creation in part to the popular success of Thomas Kyd’s revenge-play The Spanish Tragedy, which itself spawned two prequels, The Spanish Comedy and The First Part of Hieronimo. Though it is likely a myth that Shakespeare churned out The Merry Wives of Windsor after Queen Elizabeth I declared Falstaff her favourite character in Henry IV and wanted to see him in love, the anecdote endures. Perhaps because a royal yen for franchise expansion remains relatable.

When I get in touch with Sonia Friedman, the super-producer who brought Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to London, she tells me that it’s not only popular culture which has taken to looking at old stories anew. “Just look at Lucas Hnath’s brilliant play A Doll’s House: Part Two, or even Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” She’s got a point. Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was nominated for multiple American awards before coming to London’s prestigious Donmar Warehouse last year; Stoppard’s spin on Hamlet remains the pinnacle of intellectualism in modern theatre.

The upcoming theatre year, however, looks dependent on an unprecedented level of existing intellectual property, with results of more varied quality. Most anticipated is the adaptation of cult TV show Stranger Things, opening on 14th December and which Friedman has also produced. Next June sees the arrival of Mean Girls: The Musical, already a success on Broadway. In between, you can catch Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, Moulin Rouge! or Sister Act, all of which feel like paint-by-numbers affairs.

TV comedies are in on the act, too, with Only Fools Or Horses currently on tour after a West End run. This summer saw runs of The SpongeBob Musical—as in, “SquarePants”—and Idiots Assemble: The Spitting Image Musical, a supposedly progressive piece of satire that depicted the entire female leadership of the Tory party as monstrous sexual manipulators. This was cheap stuff.

Though Spitting Image did have one strength in performance. As a TV satire, it was built on the appeal of Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s iconic puppets. Bringing those puppets to the stage allowed its creators to use an inherently theatrical vocabulary its audiences already knew. Other stories which built their success on the conventions of a nontheatrical genre have experienced more of struggle in their transition to the stage. 

October saw the musical theatre opening of The Time Traveller’s Wife, a story first told as a novel by Audrey Niffenegger in 2003, then as a film directed by Robert Schwentke in 2009 and eventually as a TV series written by Steven Moffat in 2022. As Clare, an ordinary woman with the misfortune to fall in love with a man who keeps falling into other dimensions of time, Joanna Woodward is compelling—she thoroughly deserves her rising profile.

The novel’s success, however, owed much to its alternating first-person perspectives, as the story shifted between Clare and her time-travelling husband Henry. Try as the producers may —and try they have, bringing in big guns Joss Stone and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics to write the music—no one has found anything as formally interesting in the theatre adaptation.

In their screen versions, both Schwentke and Moffat were able to mark moments of time-travel by cutting adventurously between contrasting landscapes. By contrast in the stage version, Henry, played by a permanently bemused David Hunter, is simply flung about the stage by stagehands clad in ninja-black—it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to pretend we can’t see them. This is not a story that needed to be told again, in an ill-suited genre.

Yet sometimes the switch can work, and to unexpected effect. Many culture writers—myself inclued—were sceptical when it was announced that JK Rowling’s already over-extended franchise would be coming to theatre; in large part we were wrong. While developing Cursed Child, Friedman had two strokes of genius. The first was to hire director John Tiffany, who looked afresh at each of Rowling’s favourite magic spells and re-constructed them as sleights of theatrical illusion. The second was to understand that, to invest in a new story, we would have to meet a new generation of wizards: Cursed Child tells the story of Harry’s son, Albus, and his friends. 

For Stranger Things, she’s almost replicated the formula. While instead of Tiffany the show will be directed by Stephen Daldry of Billy Elliot fame, the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne has penned the adaptation. As with Harry Potter, the focus of Thorne’s script will be one generation away from the characters with whom we’re already familiar. Stranger Things: The First Shadow takes us from the 1980s to the 1950s and to the teenage life of Joyce Maldonado, whose son Will is a protagonist in the TV series; it will also deal with the arrival of Henry Creel, whose fate defines the later franchise. Alongside Thorne is a credit for Stranger Things TV writer Kate Trefry—naturally, Netflix is all over this venture.

“At base, it all comes down to story,” says Friedman. The challenge of any intellectual property’s theatre experiment is to find a story within the same universe that can only be told on stage; of all the teams who can pull it off, Daldry and Thorne are as good as any. Thorne has a fondness for re-examining theatre’s icons: his play The Motive and The Cue, about John Gielgud and Richard Burton’s production of Hamlet, has also transferred to the West End, and responds in turn to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

But while existing franchises provide a readymade fanbase, they also come with an ultra-invested community of critics. The weaknesses of Cursed Child included convoluted time-travel sequences and new backstories that appeared to undermine the storylines established by the books; Stranger Things fans have already voiced fears that Henry Creel’s story, brought to a close in the fourth series of the show, risks being similarly destabilised.

But will those fans flock loyally to the Phoenix Theatre regardless? The souvenir shops are betting on it. At The House of Spells on Charing Cross Road you can find Stranger Things merchandise alongside your Harry Potter wands. The Cursed Child team are keen to point out that 70 per cent of their audience were first-time theatregoers in the show’s first year. If plays like Stranger Things are successful in drawing in a new generation of theatregoers, let’s hope there are still a few places left in London offering original productions for them to discover next.