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Secret Cinema review: enthusiastic but distracting theatrics

February 26, 2016

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Dominic Preston

Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Photo: Camilla Greenwell

It would appear that the team behind Secret Cinema were more stung than they let on by critics’ barbs that their recent Star Wars and Back to the Future events were not so secret. Their latest, you see, is a #TellNoOne event, a return to the organisation’s origins staging events with both film and location unknown. Even more than that, this show not only is a secret, it is in many ways about secrets, playing into spywork, intrigue and the flow of information at the height of the Cold War.

Giving away as little as possible, the interactive event plays out across an air base that might just be about to kick off a nuclear war. It’s a sprawling, detailed world, from radio rooms to a mess hall, packed with period detail, too much to hope to fully explore on a single visit. Even before arriving, attendees are dragged into the plot – they’re assigned a name and role, be that government bureaucrat, agent of the press, or military officer. Role and rank determine not only the costumed dress code participants are encouraged to follow, but also their early assignments on the base.

Photo: Hanson Leatherby
Photo: Hanson Leatherby

And yes, I did say assignments. Unlike its more theatrical cousin Punchdrunk, this show enforces audience participation through a series of minor tasks, from completing maps to collecting signatures. It’s a bit like having homework, but you pay £60 for the chance to do it.

OK, it’s not strictly compulsory – let’s say ‘strongly encouraged’. It’s a fun diversion, allowing the audience an impact on the plot – a sort-of prequel to the film in question – though it all devolves (perhaps intentionally) into a chaotic mess that’s almost impossible to follow by the end. Otherwise you’re free to grab a drink, pick up some food, or listen to the band in the base’s secret cocktail bar – if you can get hold of the entry code, that is. Eventually the assorted narrative threads coalesce in a pyrotechnic climax, and the audience is ushered towards what they’ve ostensibly paid for – the screening of the film at the heart of it all.

Photo: Camilla Greenwell
Photo: Camilla Greenwell

It’s here that Secret Cinema really tips its hand though – because secret it may be once again, but it’s honestly not about cinema at all. The performance continues before, during, and after the film itself, actors popping up both on a central stage and dotted amongst the audience. Presumably the hope is to add to audience immersion, bringing them into the film – the problem being that cinema has been doing that quite satisfactorily by itself for the past century.

At its best, the show involves lighting effects and pyrotechnics to enhance the on-screen antics and underscore its more dramatic moments. More often, it’s simply costumed thespians rearing their heads to recite lines from the film – as they’re being uttered on screen simultaneously. It’s a baffling choice that’s rarely anything other than distracting, the theatrical equivalent of that annoying person who won’t stop talking in the cinema. At the show’s worst though, the cast take over the stage, ruining sightlines and obstructing the screen with enthusiastic re-enactments. Criminally, this even happens during what is perhaps the film’s most iconic moment, which is almost entirely blocked from view.

It’s an unwelcome reminder that if you’re going to screen a classic of cinema, you’ve little hope of adding to it, and every chance of distracting from it. The intricacy of Secret Cinema’s worldbuilding is hard to fault, its sense of theatrics spot on. It’s just a shame it doesn’t trust in the central film to speak for itself.

Words by Dominic Preston

Secret Cinema: Tell No One is on now until 20th March. Visit www.secretcinema.org for tickets.