As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could make out the queue snaking down the alleyway. A glamorous crowd despite the dubious surroundings, the trilby-wearing men preening just as much as their befeathered female companions. Murmurs of hushed anticipation were all that you could hear as a mob of... well, mobsters... patrolled the crowd, watched at all times from the shadows by a motionless, silent man, clad head-to-toe in black.
One punter must have caught their eye; he is pulled from the crowd and unceremoniously frisked. Only after an almost imperceptible nod from the man in black is he released, his fallen hat apologetically replaced on his head by one of the friendlier gangsters.
I reached the front of the queue without incident, bar a couple of suspicious questions, proffered the password to a grumpy bouncer in a monkey suit, and entered. The labyrinthine walkway took me past spangly, lounging performers and questionable characters, with the odd tantalising opportunities to peek into the star dressing rooms. And at the end of the corridor was the host. "You made it, my dear," he said as he whisked back the curtain with a flourish. "Welcome to the Ink and Paint Club."
This is a cinema event in a jazz club. Or a cabaret show with a film thrown in. Or audience participatory live theatre with a bit of dancing. Or all of the above. Hosted by Future Cinema, it is definitely more than just a movie. In the past, the company has organised fully immersive interactive screenings of iconic films such as Casablanca and Ghostbusters. The audience is encouraged to become part of the action, in fancy dress (or dressed fancy, if they prefer), and the organisers swear no two experiences are the same. This event is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with the venue – the East End's own infamous Troxy – replicating the film's Ink and Paint Club, the no-toons-allowed cabaret lounge where a certain Mrs Jessica Rabbit performs.
The website for the event is deliberately vague. The night could take very different turns depending on who you speak to, what you spot, and whether the Toon Patrol – yes, the mob-handed mobsters from outside – decide to pick on you. My goal was to seek out the elusive Roger Rabbit, framed for murder and on the run.
By now it is probably clear that fans of the film will have a far greater understanding of what's going on from the outset. However, if it's your first time, or a while since you've seen the film, everything will become clear during the screening, and you'll "get" a few of the in-jokes in hindsight. For those who haven't seen the film: Bob Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, a private investigator working in a Hollywood where cartoons are jobbing actors that are just as highly strung as the real-life stars. He is no fan of toons; his brother was killed by one (a piano was dropped on his head), but when Roger Rabbit comes to him for help, he finds himself compelled to help.
Not long after I'd taken my seat, my red dress a homage to Mrs Rabbit, cocktail and popcorn at the ready, I spotted Roger, and leapt to my feet. But no, it was just a regular punter, albeit one who has done very well on the dress-code brief, complete with white furry ears. Come to think of it, most had really gone for it. I spied at least three "Jessicas"; male and female gangsters complete with suspenders, pencil moustaches and pinstripes; and a hell of a lot of glamour with sequins, spangles, jewels, eyeliner and lipstick. In fact, at times it is difficult to tell the cast and customers apart.
Before the screening itself happens, the crowd get warmed up – in the physical sense by being taught an energetic Charleston-type dance, and in the biblical sense by Mrs Rabbit herself. There is no mistaking her as one of the punters – this girl is the real deal (which is odd, of course, considering she is officially a toon). By now, the audience is as rowdy as its entertainers, and she oozes around the stage as wolf-whistles chorus. She later moves through the crowd, girlfriends pasting icy smiles on their faces as Jessica pouts, flirts and teases their open-mouthed boyfriends. But fear not ladies, the only man Jessica is looking for is her Roger.
I've still got my eyes peeled for that same pesky rabbit. As do the peelers, making their way from table to table, inspecting bags, looking under tablecloths and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Judge Doom – the man in black from earlier, is far more menacing, fixing all that catch his eye with a steely gaze, if such a thing is possible behind dark shades. But the movie is about to start, and they slink away as the lights dim.
The film itself is witty and irreverent, more risqué than I remembered and at once managing to be utterly stylish while parodying both old Hollywood and every classic cartoon going. Cameo performances are rife, including the cast of Fantasia and veteran toon Betty Boop. Although the film was released in 1988, it has aged well as far as special effects goes, with the timeless comedy and tongue-in-cheek one-liners more than making up for the odd clumsy physical interaction between man and toon. The rambunctious nature of the event means organisers run the risk of the audience getting bored during the screening, but a surprise or two means they never get too complacent.
After the film, the action doesn't stop, with the venue turning into an electro-jazz nightclub. Armed with the confidence of a good costume, or perhaps a few Baby Herman cocktails, many leap on stage to join the cast, putting in a fairly convincing performance too. And it looks like it is going to be a colourful night.
So, the question remains – did I ever find the rabbit-on-the-run? Well, depends who's asking, doesn't it? I may have spotted a red pair of trousers disappearing under a table-cloth at some point. And I may have had a hurried conversation with someone who didn't want to be found. But... if the Toon Patrol ask... I heard he was on the other side of town, capisce?