“Are you a data scientist?” she asks. Yes, comes the reply. “Oh, you must be our specialist in Sumerian and Assyrian archaeology!” she adds, before engaging in a lengthy conversation about a certain celebrated dissertation on Mesopotamian ziggurats. This would be an unusual scenario for most, and stranger still that it would take place in a cinema queue (an environment not known for conversations of grave academic importance). But this is Secret Cinema: where strange encounters like this are business as usual.
Every few months these pioneers of alternative cinema programming put on epic themed events each more quixotically ambitious and stupidly entertaining than the last. They’ve had Lawrence of Arabia (1962) with Bedouin and actual camels, Bugsy Malone (1976) with custard pie fights, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) in a hospital. Last Christmas, post-war Vienna was recreated in a four-storey warehouse to mimic the world of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Any reviews of the current run must be shrouded in smokescreen, in order to comply with Secret Cinema’s ‘Tell no one’ policy. Yet plenty of cryptic clues are already out there: mailing list subscribers were invited to sign up to an ‘expedition’ with an organisation calling itself ‘Brave New Ventures’, with references to ‘psychological training’, and ‘discovering new worlds’. It’s within these new worlds that we discover in an enormous disused-building-turned-spaceship, near Euston in central London. Following ‘decontamination’, we are ushered into lines based on our supposed professions (as well as data scientists, audience members are assigned to be ore surveyors, matter analysts, containment officers and control stabilisers).
Guests mill about in pretend space uniforms, exploring the rooms which include a plant nursery, a games room, and a science laboratory. A sizable cast of actors are always close by, encouraging you to lose yourself in the experience. We were then led into the ‘loading bay’, where what appears to be two gigantic (and apparently genuine) props from the film greets us. It’s perhaps the most impressive – and probably most expensive – part of the whole evening.
After a couple of hours of larking about and pretending, the attending crowd of hundreds are shepherded into a chaotic ‘evacuation’. A deafening alarm sounds. Actors run through the crowd screaming in panic. The staged sense of anxiety feels curiously real. Then, finally, we sit down to watch the secret film – and it is undeniably marvellous.
Little wonder, then, that audiences have been coming in droves to Secret Cinema, as it’s just about the most fun it is possible to have in London. The evening could only have been improved by marginally less time spent queueing – is it possible to give a better recommendation than that?
For more info on Secret Cinema, visit secretcinema.org.