james debate
james debate

Monday 25 November 2019

secret cinema stranger things london 2019

Let me begin by asking you a hypothetical. Would you pay £70 per person to attend a film screening where you dress up as a character in the movie and spend an hour or two hanging out in an interactive environment themed after the movie? If the answer is yes then Secret Cinema is probably something you would enjoy.

But let me ask a follow up. Would you pay the same price for the above product but without the film screening? The answer, of course, depends on how well they've executed the rest of the experience.

I am a fan of Secret Cinema, and this is the fifth of their productions that I have attended. I love the concept of immersive entertainment and enjoy the addition of interactive elements to these worlds. It's safe to say I am an even bigger fan of Stranger Things, a show upon which I have lavished great praise on this blog, and is very much in the running for 2019's best TV show. Despite these favourable predispositions, I unfortunately have to report that this is the first Secret Cinema production that I have attended and felt that it was simply not worth the money.

Secret Cinema presents: Stranger things represents the company's first foray into television. The usual Secret Cinema formula is this:

  1. Create an atmospheric location themed after a movie
  2. Dress up and spend an hour or two hanging out at said location, eating, drinking, dancing, and partaking in various themed activities/missions
  3. Watch the film in a comfortable and atmospheric setting full of inebriated, like-minded people who are really into the whole experience.

It is reasonable to wonder how they would adapt this formula to a TV show. After all, a whole season of Stranger Things might last some ten hours or so. Do they just show the finale? The first episode? Some mash up or remix of the season? The answer, it turns out, was none of the above.

To their credit, Secret Cinema have done a fine job in creating their atmospheric location. This production's converted warehouse is broadly divided into two sections: Starcourt mall and the July 4th town's fair. Both areas have been lovingly and lavishly recreated from the show, and filled with various shops, bars and other curiosities containing references to the show. You can get an ice cream from Scoops Ahoy, or a burger from Benny's Burgers. You can try your luck at the videogame arcade, or get a coke float at a bar playing 80s music videos. And then for some reason there's a Coach shop selling modern handbags. The food was actually pretty tasty.

There are various activities throughout the venue including fairground games and dancing. Every now and again the cast members will hold a dance-off or science quiz to break things up a bit. In addition, each attendee will receive a mission to seek out one of the cast members and do a little sleuthing to solve a mystery. This is a good idea in theory, but the missions are themselves very simple and superficial. My contact just told me to look someone up on a computer and... that was it. The results of that search didn't have any more clues, there was no more puzzle to solve, they just referred back to it at the end of the evening, "You remember that guy you read about? I found him!". It was a five minute task made longer by the fact that you have to queue for 20 minutes to speak to the contact, and then another 20 minutes to use one of the only two available computers.

This highlights the first problem with this production, which is increasingly an issue with Secret Cinema. They clearly aren't making any money on these lavish, but brief productions and the best idea they seem to be able to come up with to solve this problem is to cram an ever greater number of people into a room with little regard for comfort or experience. That and a Coach sponsorship, apparently.

You will find actors floating about the venue performing as characters from the show, and the casting here is actually pretty remarkable. The likenesses are very impressive. The guy playing Alexei I'm still not entirely convinced wasn't the actual actor from the show. They have a script and storyline that they follow throughout the show, and from what I saw they do a good job of it. The storylines themselves are pretty forgettable and derivative, more references and callbacks to the show rather than actual stories. It's also very difficult to get involved or follow what's happening due to the fact that every cast member will invariably have about 100 people gathered around them at all times, and they don't wear microphones. If you're short like me, then you might as well just not bother.

Then the finale. For the first time in Secret Cinema history, there is no screening. Instead there's a 20-30 minute theatrical montage, loosely following the events of the three seasons of Stranger Things. There isn't really much to follow here, it's mostly the actors miming while various out-of-context sound clips of the TV series are played in the background. Notably there isn't even any seating for this performance, the audience is entirely standing (I can only imagine that this is so that they can cram more paying customers into the venue). As before, this makes it very difficult to actually see much of what is happening, especially if you're short. And... then it's over. That's it, there's no payoff at the end, not even really a goodbye. Just get the heck out and maybe spend some more money at our bars before you go. I couldn't help but feel like I had just spent £70 as a cover charge for an 80s themed bar.

The theatrical performance, as it is, is not terrible, it's just... nothing substantial. There are moments of fun, like briefly breaking out into Never Ending Story, but those moments are far too brief (in fact they only play the opening one or two lines of the song - licensing reasons maybe?). There's nothing there that justifies that finale over, say, watching an episode of the series instead.

At this point it is worth remembering the history of Secret Cinema. Initially, the concept was just: watch a movie in a themed room, with some limited interaction for flavour. The company did not start off as this immersive theatre company, that only came recently. I love immersive theatre. There are some companies that do it very well indeed (see: Punchdrunk). Secret Cinema currently is nowhere near that level. They've done a decent job at recreating a few scenes from Stranger Things, but when you look closer there's surprisingly little detail and not all that much exploring to be done.

Whereas other immersive productions might have you explore fully-realised, lived-in settings full of interactive items and flavour providing clues as to the larger story, Secret Cinema's settings still far too often just feel like the bare essential props on a fold-out table. The theatrical efforts feel more like rehashed references than anything worth paying attention to, and the interactive activities remain largely pointless and superficial busywork.

In the past this wasn't so much of a problem, since these immersive elements were merely garnish for the screening. But in a show like this where the interactive elements are the actual meat of the experience... it's just not sufficient. It's not deep enough or interesting enough to form the central focus of a production, it doesn't feel like anything more than a superficial knowing wink to the fans. It still feels like garnish, only now there is nothing at the centre of the experience to be garnished.

And then there is the price. The £70 (or more) entry fee is comparable to previous productions, only now the core of the experience (the screening) has been removed, and seemingly replaced by nothing. This might not have been a problem had they substantially improved the interaction and other immersive elements of the experience, but they haven't it's largely the same as what we have seen from them before.

So I am a bit torn on how I feel about this production. On the one hand, I did have fun. Of course it is fun to dress up as an 80s stereotype and hang out in a themed bar doing various themed activities based on an IP that you love. But it all feels so insubstantial. On the balance I would say I enjoyed the experience more than not, but the pricing makes it difficult to recommend. If the £70 per person ticket fee for a film screening with interactive elements was already unpalatable to some, charging the same price for those same interactive elements but no screening is crazy.

Ultimately I think this is the big takeaway here. Immersive entertainment can, of course, be done without a film screening. If Secret Cinema want to produce shows that focus solely on the other elements of the production, they need to significantly improve the quality of those elements, or significantly reduce the price.

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