As I walked towards Kellerman’s resort in Leyton Jubilee gardens, surrounded by women carrying fake watermelons, I knew exactly what to expect.
I was on my way to Secret Cinema’s Dirty Dancing event, the latest in a long line of immersive cinema experiences offered by the company, and I predicted that I’d spend an evening surrounded by actors putting on questionable US accents, overpriced food stands and hordes of impressively-dressed fans.
You see, this wasn’t my first Secret Cinema rodeo. Just last year I attended the much-hyped Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back event and before that I made the trip to Hill Valley for their Back to the Future screening (the set-up of which was very similar to the Dirty Dancing event), and the format was always the same.
A couple of hours wandering around the world of the film and interacting with the characters, perusing some stalls and food stands, engaging in some activities and then settling down to actually watch the movie. During said movie, actors would re-enact key scenes from the film in a faintly distracting way, and people would cheer. Simple.
And I wasn’t disappointed with any of those elements this time around. The newly-created Kellerman’s (the holiday camp where the film is set) was suitably sprawling and impressive, the performers’ accents were endearingly woeful, and everything remained extremely expensive.
(Side note: I know people reviewing Secret Cinema always go on about the expense, but it is still a major sticking point for me – this particular experience would cost £65 without travel, nearly twice as much as an earlier Secret Cinema Dirty Dancing event in 2013, and when inside guests are made to pay exorbitant prices for food, drink and even some activities. It’s not surprising, but it’s still a bit ridiculous)
But then the film came on – and for the first time that night, I was actually surprised.
The screaming, the laughter, the constant dancing – I’d never seen an audience reaction like it, not even at the last two Secret Cinemas. Men and women of all ages were up on their feet, booing the baddies, whooping whenever Patrick Swayze took his shirt off, and practicing their moves when Baby (Jennifer Grey) discovered the secret sexy dance parties at Kellerman’s.
The whole thing was eye-opening, and not just in terms of how intense the love people had for Dirty Dancing was. I kind of knew that already (even if I was a little unprepared for how much joy a line like “I carried a watermelon” would bring). No, what I realised was that the best communal cinema experience doesn’t always come from watching one of your favourite films with hundreds of people – it comes from watching a very particular type of film with those people.
Back to the Future and Star Wars, though superior movies from my perspective, don’t encourage the same kind of mass participation and carefree fun that a film like Dirty Dancing does. It possesses a peculiar cocktail of nostalgia, familiarity, sex appeal and genuinely great musical sequences, and I probably enjoyed watching it in East London with all “Crazy for Swayze” gang more than most any trips to the cinema I’ve taken recently, secret or otherwise.
Frankly, despite what I expected, I had the time of my life.
Secret Cinema will return soon for another movie experience