Secret Cinema Back to the Future, review: Interactive cinema experience finally arrives

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Sometimes the immersive experience was so good that it blurred the line between fiction and reality

Secret Cinema finally opened one week after its organisers cancelled its first week of shows hours before the scheduled opening. Fabien Riggall, founder of the immersive film-experience company, cited a “myriad of reasons” for his decision to cancel the first week of the run. The backlash on social media was immense, especially as the show had sold 40,000 tickets in the first hour they had gone on sale.

The opening night was not without problems. Told to meet at an East London train station, punters had to walk for 10 minutes to the venue and then queue for half an hour as they waited to leave their phones and other modern gadgets at the door. They also had to queue for an hour to get food at the 1950s diner recreated at the venue, and the toilets were of Glastonbury standard.

But when Secret Cinema delivered, it was excellent. The set takes over much of the Olympic Park at which Hill Valley, California, circa 1955 has been recreated. Most of the locations were remarkable. The experience starts with a walk through Hill Valley Farm replete with sheep and chickens.

There is then a saunter along Riverside drive, where the houses of the Hill Valley residents had been recreated. These abodes were the most disappointing parts of the set. For one thing they were one-room bungalows and much is made in the film of George Mcfly spying on his future wife from a tree across the street. Better were the billboards, perfect for hiding a DeLorean. The Hill Valley Square featured more than 30 buildings including a high school. Clock tower, barbers, record shop and comic shop were excellent.

Secret Cinema starts as soon as a ticket is procured, with audience members being assigned characters and encouraged to dress and play the part. This was another bone of contention after the late cancellation of the original shows: audience members had already spent a lot of money on costumes. At the first night, there was an abundance of 1950s clothing and the odd man dressed as the wacky Dr Emmett Brown.

I was given the character of Raymond Wallace, a travel consultant, and ventured to my supposed place of work, Ask Mister Foster Travel Service. There I found a desk and a wall with postcards and a map of Europe. It didn’t feel very 1955 as it featured The Russian Federation, and the recently formed Balkan states. Yet these details were brilliantly turned on their head when an air hostess took us on an imaginary air trip and the differences between past and present were lampooned.

Video: One couple talk about what Secret Cinema meant to them

Sometimes the immersive experience was so good that it blurred the line between fiction and reality. I was treated to a beard trim by Paul des Reis of Genco Male Grooming, who revealed that his first customer that night didn’t realise he was actually going to get a real hair cut.

My favourite venue was Hill Valley High School, where the Enchantment Under the Sea dance took place. A band was playing music, and you saw the classroom where the teacher warned of the dangers of communism and the opposite sex. And then there was the visit by Mr Strickland, who managed to improvise lines from the film.

Read more: Why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
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