It’s 6pm in a disused warehouse, somewhere in London. Hordes of guests clad in 1980s denim, neon and puffer jackets are starting to swarm around outside, searching for a clue to lead them down to the action. So far, so Secret Cinema. The immersive film specialists have, for more than a decade, taken some of the best-loved movies and brought them to life, letting crowds of more than a thousand a night assume characters, curiously seek out scene-shifting moments and walk into the worlds of their favourite films.
But this winter’s show marks Secret Cinema’s first foray beyond the silver screen as it embraces the cult Netflix show Stranger Things created by the Duffer Brothers. The production, which opens tonight and runs until February 2020, is set in 1985, when the Hawkins High classes of 1978-1983 are returning for the mother of all Independence Day reunions led by Mayor Kline on 4 July. Each of the 1,200-strong crowd will be assigned a character from each of the year groups, with a distinct 1980s look, music taste and mission. For the disappearance of Barb isn’t the unresolved mystery in Hawkins – new storylines authorised by Netflix have been woven into Secret Cinema’s production, which beckons the curious in to play along with the actors and immerse themselves in the storyline.
The partnership with Netflix was struck up when Secret Cinema approached the US streaming giant requesting to create the world of Hawkins, Indiana, and bring Stranger Things to life. Talks originally centred on a production that would be set between series two and three, exploring the loose ends between the two seasons, yet due to timings a storyline around the end of series three seemed more plausible, with Secret Cinema committing to the production based on the script and before the release of the third series and subsequent fan and critic reaction.
The production is the second by Secret Cinema’s creative director Matthew Bennett, his debut being last summer’s Romeo & Juliet. It's fitting, then, that for preview night he has dressed to fully embrace his New Romantic side. A former journalist at Clash magazine and founder of Kinky Afro night at the Sub Club, Bennett has been instrumental in effortlessly blending brand partnerships into the set and world of Hawkins, from the retro sprawling Coca-Cola billboard to Jack Daniel's dive bar with its enticing dancefloor. Most excitingly, in Starcourt Mall itself, a Mac pop-up offers makeovers and sells special-edition lipsticks created to represent each of the year groups, from New Romantics through to punks.
The impressive list of brand partners enhancing the spirit of Hawkins, including Stolichnaya, Raleigh, Instax, Glow and Coach, have also helped to realise the ambitious scale and obsession to detail of this production. The challenge of putting on a show based on three series – 21 hours of television rather than a couple of hours of film – is not lost on Bennett: "We have more characters, more locations, more of everything, plus trying to build a shopping mall and stay on budget. Stranger Things collaged around 75 movies from the 80s; we are collaging a collage and it is a really detailed, vivid, minutiae-driven experience."
Indeed, the absence of a two-hour film hasn't hindered the production – instead, it has enabled the immersive specialists to create numerous scenes, spaces and experiences from across the three series of Stranger Things. And is it the start of a longer partnership between the two companies? Bennett believes the two parties have moved "beyond cagey optimism towards a full brand bromance". "The Duffer brothers have homaged so many films that we as creators and our fans love, so Stranger Things feels like a really natural fit for us," he explains, confirming that the early reception from Netflix has been very positive.
Original content has been teased before by Secret Cinema – with Bennett conceding that it would be a natural evolution for the entertainment brand – as would reviving Secret Music, one of founder Fabien Riggall’s past successes.
"There’s always the appetite to mangle with the format. This production is a fully monstrous meeting of television meets theatre, exploding it off the sofa, with 1,200 people exploring the format," Bennett says.
And, just like that, the New Romantic slips away into a void – possibly the darkness of the Upside Down itself. Here’s hoping he makes it out with future tales to tell.