It’s officially over now, so I can finally write about my experience at the Secret Cinema Stranger Things immersive experience that has been on in London these past few months. I went with my mate Ally Hogg, The Retro Hunter again, after we both had loved the Blade Runner one last year. 

On Sat Nov 30th 2019 Ally and I, accompanied by Ally’s son and Ally’s friend, donned our best 80s gear and made our way to East London. The venue, which used to always be secret was not quite as secret this time as it was the same venue as the Blade Runner event, but anyone who hadn’t attended that one still would have no trouble finding it because once they arrived at the designated Tube station they just had to follow all the people dressed up in 80s garb. A river of neon made its way across the two set of traffic lights and round the corner to the venue.

One of the things about these Secret Cinema events is that you have to dress up. You basically stand out and look stupid if you don’t dress up. I had chosen to go for a kind of Miami Vice general vibe, basically because that just really consists of a jacket with your sleeves rolled up. I also had a Flynn’s arcade trucker cap and orange Walkman headphones, and I used this as a chance to wear my He-Man Andy Warhol t-shirt again that I had made previously. Furthermore I adorned my jacket lapels with loads of 80s badges that I happen to own. Quite a few classic badges there and I actually got quite a few comments about my badges from actors and attendees alike which was nice.

As soon as we walked in, we were in the Starcourt Mall. The mall had things like a clothes shop, burger bar, some other stalls and of course an arcade (bit small though, and some of the arcade machines used LCD flat screens, shock horror!). As you carried on through, you then entered a recreation of the summer fair from Season 3 of Stranger Things. This had some interactive stalls you could get involved with and every so often there was a big group exercise or sing-along, much like how back in the shopping mall they had a flash mob style aerobics session at one point.

The detail was pretty good around the place, with posters and flyers for local Hawkins events and businesses decorating the walls. And even actual telephone booths that you could use to hear recorded messages that would give you a clue for your mission. Similar to the Blade Runner event, each person had a mission, and you were meant to interact with other guests and also the actors who looked like the cast of the show, in order to find out some of the mysteries that were happening in Hawkins. 

We had booked the VIP tickets, after the VIP experience had been so good at Blade Runner. For this event the VIP tickets meant that we were part of the media, and were given media badges which granted us access to the media tents and we also got complimentary drinks and food. Another thing we got straight away was that we got fast tracked into one of the hidden rooms. In this case it was Hopper’s cabin. Eleven and Max took us through a dark woods area and into a recreation of the cabin. Here they acted some weird stuff happening, with Eleven taking a trip to the void with her blindfold on, like in the show. But that happened after they did some crowd interaction with the 15 or so people that they had in the cabin at that point. Max put on some music and they were asking people what their favourite dance moves were. They demonstrated their own favourite dance moves and then they asked a female attendee if she could demonstrate her favourite dance move. I suddenly panicked as I realised I was also at the front of the group and there was a strong chance they were going to ask me what my favourite dance move was. The sweat was already starting to drip when Max looked at me and said ‘How about you buddy? What’s your favourite dance move?!’. My mind went blank and then before I reverted to an awkward dad dance I suddenly remembered Chubby Checker and the Fat Boys, so I just did a basic ‘twist’. It went down ok, got a few laughs and wasn’t as embarrassing as when I had got picked on at the Blade Runner event and just didn’t know how to respond at all. A few minutes later I was kicking myself that I hadn’t done ‘the robot’, as that would have gotten a bigger laugh. Oh well. 

Later on we found another hidden room by following Billy when he was trying to recruit followers. We got taken through into a completely dark huge room with a light shining onto a table in the middle and Billy then spoke to us all and brainwashed us into joining his army. Quite nicely done. At this point I have to say that the actors are all great. Very well cast indeed. Some of them were the spitting image of their TV counterparts.

Now, I have attended the Back to the Future, Star Wars and Blade Runner Secret Cinema events before and I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with this Stranger Things one if I’m totally honest. We felt that the mission/investigation part of the experience, which had been so well done at the Blade Runner one, wasn’t done as well at Stranger Things. It was a bit more confusing what we had to do. We had to speak to local people of Hawkins and ask about any strange occurrences in town and then report back to the media tent with stories that they could run with. But every time we went back they kind just of brushed off our info and said to go back out and get some more. But every line of questioning we tried just ended up with a dead end. Maybe we just weren’t doing it right. I was hoping that the investigations would lead to hidden rooms etc, but despite us making big efforts to speak to lots of characters we never really got any hint at all of anything like that. The only two hidden bits we found were Hopper’s cabin and also the dark room where Billy was basically recruiting his army. Neither of these were as a result of doing the ‘missions’. I have to say that the Blade Runner Secret Cinema had handled this stuff a lot better.

Meanwhile, all the non-VIP attendees had to do something similar I believe. Part of their missions was that they had to find a media reporter (i.e. us VIP folk) and drag us over to a stage where we had to interview them on stage and be filmed on a big screen. We didn’t know any of this. So at one point I was approached by two people who were very excited to see me, pulled me away from my group and started asking me questions and asking if I could help them. They were so well dressed in costume and so enthusiastic that I thought they were part of the actors, but they were speaking in English accents rather than American accents so I was a bit confused. Meanwhile apparently they also thought I was part of the acting team even though I was speaking with a Scottish accent, and they were kind of asking me what to do next, and I’m like ‘um, I don’t know’ which confused them even more. Eventually we both broke cover and asked if we were attendees rather than actors and then they explained that they have been tasked to find a reporter and to go to the stage etc. So I went with them and then lost them in the crowd in the summer fair. But as soon as I turned around someone else saw my VIP reporter badge and grabbed me and took me over to the stage where I had to interview them live on TV. I had to talk live on stage in front of a crowd, with a camera and lights in my face and an actor ‘floor manager’ putting time pressure on me, when I didn’t really know what I was meant to be doing in the first place. It kind of felt a bit like work. Not really an experience that I wanted to pay more for the privilege. Especially for someone like myself who has a stutter. And literally five seconds after I came off stage another group spotted my badge and made me do the exact same thing again! And there’s a waiting process here too, where you have to stand in a queue for the privilege to talk live on stage, so it took up about 20mins of my night and had taken me away from my friends. After that second time I took off my media VIP badge as I didn’t want to go through that again. So to be honest I don’t really think the VIP added anything and certainly wasn’t worth the money.

The linear layout of the venue meant that characters were just walking back and forth in one main line through the three connected spaces, and each character(s) had a big group of attendees following them at all times. There were bottlenecks at the entrances into each area and it was very hard to hear what the actors were acting out unless you happened to be in the front of the crowd right next to them.

One new thing about this one was that it didn’t have a screening of a full movie. It was a TV show. So I was intrigued about how they were going to do it. The final screening bit was good and quite cleverly done, but again it wasn’t great. It was a little bit slow and predictable in places. Certainly not a patch on stuff like being part of the medal ceremony in Star Wars or having a DeLorean screech past you in Back to the Future. I’m a huge fan of Secret Cinema so I feel I can be honest when they have their first one that doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. Their other ones have been so amazing that it’s a high standard to maintain. It was always going to be a challenge, picking a TV show where they couldn’t just show a full movie at the end of the night. They kind of had a montage of various bits from the three seasons of Stranger Things and recreated these in the flesh with actors that were standing up on the edges of the square warehouse space that we were all standing in. It probably lasted for about 20 mins or so. I would personally stick to films where the audience at least get to watch a full movie after having the build up of the immersive experience.

But I know the majority of people had an amazing night and absolutely loved it. And there were lots of parts of the experience that I really enjoyed. My main criticism was that the VIP tickets didn’t get us much extra. They cost a lot more money after all. The VIP tickets gave us a much better experience in the Blade Runner one as we got to play the character of an actual Blade Runner and we also got some goodies to take away (I still use the wallet freebie to this day). In the Stranger Things one we didn’t really seem to get much extra out of the experience. And in fact I felt like I was doing a job when I got press-ganged by those two groups. And this was all on top of the fact that we didn’t even get to watch a full movie. So even though it was still very good, and first time Secret Cinema goers probably loved it, I did still have quite a few nitpicks.

Hopefully the next one will be back to full movies and back to the level of Blade Runner in terms of missions, or just an immersive experience like BTTF or Star Wars. I’m still a huge fan of Secret Cinema and can’t wait for the next experience.