Starting life as a small theatre company acting out immersive introductions to classic movies – Funny Face, Night at the Opera – Secret Cinema, now in its eleventh year, has evolved into a pop-culture leviathan. Its productions, involving dozens of actors and hundreds of support staff, attract upwards of 100,000 visitors over the course of a run, and, with tickets going for up to £115 each, it even gatecrashes the UK box office listings.
The original conceit was to keep visitors in the dark about the movie they were about to watch, supplying them with only a location and a dress code. Sold-out productions of Alien, Lawrence of Arabia (at Alexandra Palace, featuring live camels) and One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (staged in an abandoned Victorian psychiatric hospital, with original features including a leather-strapped bath tub) saw the company rise from cult favourite to serious player in the London entertainment industry.
Many, including some within the company, still view the 2011 The Shawshank Redemption show as a high water mark. This sprawling, multi-location production began at a “courthouse” in Bethnal Green, before whisking convicts – I was sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery – into 1950s people carriers, dropping them at a converted Victorian school, dressing them in scrubs and locking them in prison cells; after three hours of activities including music therapy, the film was screened.
Soon after, the spin-off “Secret Cinema Presents” was conceived. Far larger in terms of both visitor-count and budget, these shows revealed the movie in advance, shifting from ad hoc locations to filmset-like warehouses that could be worked on for months in advance. Highlights have included Back to the Future, The Empire Strikes Back (featuring a full-sized X-Wing soaring over the crowd as the film played), 28 Days Later (watched while lying flat on a hospital bed), and now Blade Runner.
You’re filled with a childlike wonder upon entering these intricately rendered fantasy worlds; wandering the sandy markets of Tatooine, the post-apocalyptic hellscape of zombified London, or the neon-soaked squalor of dystopian Los Angeles is a big fuzzy dose of wish fulfilment. A decade of set dressing has made the technicians at Secret Cinema masters at creating a sense of place, able to convincingly immerse you in alien environs.
But the sheer scale comes at a cost, with some of the immediacy, the one-on-one interactions that typified the earlier productions, inevitably lost. You might be sent on a top secret mission by a rogue replicant, or you might just find yourself supplementing your already expensive ticket at the plethora of bars and food vendors, where a G&T in a plastic cup will set you back an otherworldly £8.50. These commercial areas have become the hub of Secret Cinema events, rather than the place you go for a quick breather before heading back into the fray.
When it’s good, however, it’s very, very good. The technical achievements and vast set pieces are a joy to behold, and acted sequences during the movie – real-life crowds milling beneath the screen as Deckard elbows his way through a food market, for instance – add to, rather than distract from, the visuals. It’s a hell of an experience, unlike anything else (despite the would-be imitators).
But as a long-term Secret Cinema fan, part of me would happily swap the big-budget spectacle, the C-beams glittering in the dark, for the human touch of shows gone by, those moments lost in time, like tears in rain.