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Our verdict on Secret Cinema Presents ‘Stranger Things’

Written by
Tom Huddleston

Secret Cinema’s latest interactive experience is a leap into the unknown for its creators as much as their audience. Can an event traditionally tied to a specific, well-loved film – and culminating in a screening – still work when the anchor is a streaming series? Is it really Secret Cinema without the ‘cinema’ part?

As always, the creative team has gone to extraordinary lengths to immerse attendees in the world of the show. It’s the Fourth of July and the town of Hawkins, Indiana is hosting the biggest high school reunion party of all time. Mulleted, deely-boppered and dolled up in their shiniest ’80s threads, the students have gathered at the neon-drenched Starcourt Mall to shop, stuff their faces with Scoops Ahoy ice cream and party the night away. But in the darkness on the edge of town, something wicked is lurking…

The mall is spectacularly recreated inside and out, with a video bar, a fashion emporium and an old-school arcade where punters can remind themselves how infuriatingly impossible early console machines were (I spent 25 minutes on Donkey Kong and didn’t make it past the first screen). Hits of the era blast from the public address system and those inclined can take part in dance-offs and energetic, Jane Fonda-style fitness workouts in the lobby.

But it’s not just about retro rubbernecking: there are stories to follow too, mysteries to uncover and hidden spaces to explore. Actors in character weave through the crowd, pursuing leads of their own and encouraging the audience to join in. Costumes, haircuts and accents are painstakingly recreated, and some of the performers look so much like their onscreen counterparts (hello, bad boy Billy Hargrove) that it’s almost spooky.

But with up to 1,200 ticketholders heading to this secret location on any one night, it can be easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on and who’s following who. The space can start to feel uncomfortably crowded, and when something exciting does kick off – like a shouting match between Sheriff Hopper and one of his subordinates – the scale of the crowd and the reverberations in the room can render their dialogue inaudible to anyone more than three feet away. Queues for the many bars, food stands and attractions get pretty long, unless you’re willing to fork out a lot more money for a VIP pass.

Of course, even without the film, the whole evening is building up to something, but we’re not allowed to reveal anything about that, on pain of death. Suffice it to say that the climax is gripping, occasionally unnerving and will leave you humming the theme song from ‘The NeverEnding Story’.

As an act of time-travelling ’80s nostalgia, Secret Cinema presents ‘Stranger Things’ is undoubtedly impressive – the attention to detail is remarkable, even for someone who lived through the decade. As in the series, there are moments of genuine surprise and tension, where everything suddenly flips from upbeat to unsettling. But given the high cost of entry, the overcrowding does seem exploitative, and there are times when the whole thing feels closer to a cattle drive than an immersive art show.

Verdict: ⭐️

Secret Cinema presents ‘Stranger Things’ run until Feb 2020. Head to the official site for tickets.

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