When Secret Cinema began, it was a fairly simple idea – screen popular movies in interesting or atmospheric locations, adding a small element of interaction or immersion for fans as they enjoyed a film classic with their friends. As time went on, however, their ambitions grew.
In 2015, for Back to the Future they built a functioning version of Hill Valley’s town square allowing visitors to live the 1950s adventures of Marty McFly, while subsequent productions – which have included Star Wars, Blade Runner, Dirty Dancing and Romeo + Juliet among others – continued to raise the stakes in terms of scale, interaction (with various secret missions for attendees to try out) and, er, price, with the once eye-watering £50 ticket for Back to the Future now looking like a relatively cheap night out in Secret Cinema terms.
All of which brings us to Secret Cinema’s take on Netflix series Stranger Things, a bit of a gamechanger on more than one account. Notably, it’s the first time Secret Cinema has taken on a TV show rather than a movie – and it’s also the first time that there isn’t any screening at all.
Yes, that’s right. For the first time, visitors to this Secret Cinema won’t be treated to a screening of anything at all, with the usual immersive experience and theatrical recreations of key scenes instead forming the entirety of the attraction.
Given that it’s also related to a TV show, the “cinema” suffix of the title has never seemed less appropriate, andfrom my perspective it’s a disappointing and slightly baffling move that undermines the whole event – a shame, because up until that point it was one of Secret Cinema’s best yet.
In the past, the Secret Cinema worlds that I’ve been most convinced by have been the most down-to-Earth – Back to the Future’s Hill Valley, Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman’s, even the casinos of James Bond’s world for Casino Royale – and building on that background, the Secret Cinema’s take on Hawkins, Indiana is a triumph.
Within a secret London location, the Secret Cinema team has conjured a fun and involving version of Hawkins’ Starcourt mall stuffed with fun activities (I even played classic videogames), engaging challenges, secret areas and crucial missions (in a moment of organiser wit, the reviewers at the event were placed in ‘Hawkins News Network’ and told to track down a story) as well as plenty of actors re-enacting key scenes from Stranger Things’ third season.
Yes, this portion of the night focuses almost exclusively on the third seeason, which makes a certain sense when you visit the areas – if based on season one, would we have just wandered around a school and a quarry? – and given that these episodes are the freshest in fans’ minds, it doesn’t feel like too much of a blasphemy (also, a couple of moments from earlier on in the story are shoehorned in).
This is also the Secret Cinema event where I’ve been most convinced by the actors playing the story’s lead characters. I’m not sure whether this was a concerted effort to find people who could conceivably look and act like David Harbour, Winona Ryder et al or just luck (certainly the 1980s wigs do a lot of the work) but it was a refreshing change after a few of these events where only the costumes would lend a clue as to who the actors were supposed to be portraying.
Overall, this portion of the night was one of the better Secret Cinema experiences. But the whole thing fell down for me when we headed off for the night’s entertainment, following a slightly bizarre bit of theatre that apparently changed the events of Stranger Things for a crowd-pleasing moment.
Ushered into another location very, very slowly (I think we waited for about 20 minutes), an atmospheric recreation of Stranger Things scenes ensued, which I won’t spoil here at the request of the organisers.
But really, that is your lot. Around half an hour or so of performers re-enacting key parts of Stranger Things accompanied by clips while the audience stands, occasionally cheering them on during fan favourite moments.
It’s essentially Stranger Thing remixed, and not in linear order– it’s an impressive spectacle, but it’s by default not quite as entertaining as it would be to just…watch some Stranger Things, with the original actors, in its original form. For my money, these recreations work better when accompanying an actual screening (which is what Secret Cinema normally does), not in place of one, and after I while I found my patience slightly fraying.
As we wandered back out into Hawkins (which had a few of its attractions still open after the performance) I heard more than one audience member ask each other “Was that it?” unaware (like myself, I confess) that there had been no screening planned. Sure, it would have been difficult to do a screening of one Stranger Things episode, devoid of its context – but couldn’t they at least have made the season three finale work?
Also, bizarrely, parts of the story seemed to be changed in the live-action enactments to provide a more upbeat conclusion, in a very odd approach to adaptation which seems to slightly undermine the integrity of their recreation.
Fundamentally, this lack of a screening slightly ruined the event for me, and was even more of a drag than the usual Secret Cinema concerns about price (tickets range from around £50 to well over £100) or non-included food.
As much as I enjoyed and was impressed by the immersive element, that’s not all I expect from Secret Cinema. I also want to see a film – or at least a TV episode – because fundamentally I’m a fan of that piece of work, not a cover version of it.
For others who more especially enjoy the immersive side of these nights out, this may be less of an issue, of course. I can always just watch Stranger Things at home on Netflix, and if the main draw for you is the pageantry and world-building then you won’t be disappointed.
But as for me, I wasn’t a fan of this particular Secret Cinema experiment. Some curiosity doors should stay closed.
Secret Cinema Presents Stranger Things runs until February 2020, and tickets are available here