Secret Cinema: Dirty Dancing review – the UK's biggest hen party

Re-enactments of the film’s big scenes enable a hyped-up, hula-hooping crowd in a sing-along with the atmosphere of a drunken sleepover

“When I say DANCE, you say ING, dancING, dancING!” honks a pigtailed rep through a megaphone, wearing boxfresh Keds, a burgundy Kellerman’s T-shirt and apostrophes for eyes, at the entrance to a familiar looking time warp. “The talent contest will be at 6.45pm!” The crowd, dressed head to toe in 1963, cheerfully whoop and expectantly scan the commotion of fancy dress and forced fun. This is Secret Cinema, after all, where the first rule isn’t don’t talk about Secret Cinema; it’s get involved or go home.

For summer, the blockbustering site-specific behemoth has recreated randy coming-of-age classic Dirty Dancing. As usual, at a secret London location, there are interactive re-enactments and festivalesque frippery foreshadowing the film itself, elevating it from “outdoor screening in a field” to what fancy folk call “experiential cinema”. In other words, it’s a festival built around a movie – but, considering the movie, tonight’s vibe is of the UK’s biggest hen party. Women clutching mini bottles of rosé and hula hoops herd themselves towards dance classes. Others troop around the site with a look of extreme fomo as they try to find which parts of the film are being acted out where. It’s full-on but hard not to get swept up in the excitement as Johnny Castle saunters past in a ruffle sleeved salsa shirt.


Immersive elements like these comprise the “secret” of Secret Cinema, now that there’s no big reveal. In its early days, beginning in 2007, the choice of film was kept hush-hush until the projector flicked on; and trying to guess what cinematic world you were in was once part of its risky joy. At one I discovered cult New York gangland drama The Warriors; at another, Technicolor Martin Scorsese favourite The Red Shoes. But in recent years, the Secret Cinema setup has changed. It’s become a phenomenon, hauling in fans on an unrivalled scale, and has switched to announcing the film in advance. Most attendees I talk to on the night say they prefer to know what they’re watching, anyway. Then there’s no fear of forking out for, as one couple with matching neckerchiefs recount disappointedly, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in an office block in Croydon.

Even so, Secret Cinema has since had its fair share of unpredictability. Their 2014 staging of The Grand Budapest Hotel was so popular that it carried the film to the top of the UK box office. But last year’s The Empire Strikes Back extravaganza, a mammoth Star Wars run where they built the Mos Eisley cantina, had mixed reviews. Many marvelled as Luke Skywalker took flight in spacecraft above the audience during a crucial battle; several critics found the am-dram bits confusing or, due to increasing audience numbers, difficult to even see.

I’ve always found the re-enactments during the sit-down part of the evening – essentially the miming of the film’s big scenes – to be distracting, like watching two pictures at the same time. Back in Catskills, NY, it’s no different. Except that, while Star Wars and Secret Cinema’s popular version of Back to the Future in 2014 had flying space ships overhead and hoverboards that circled the audience, Dirty Dancing’s action is more subtle. I’m not sure what we were expecting, really – a mass “lift”? A director’s-cut sex scene? Patrick Swayze in holographic form? – but the film’s soft focused, perma-tanned, nylon-rubbing intimacy is lost when you’re watching it play out on a stage 200 metres away. Its energy instead came from the audience’s enthusiasm, who by now had turned the show into one giant pissed sleepover, complete with huge sing-alongs to the soundtrack and screaming at the film’s famous quotes.

Other interactive elements felt less contrived: the clandestine, sweat-slicked staff quarters, particularly, for which you can gather up your oversized fruit and utter the immortal line, “I carried a watermelon” on entering. The section contains its own club which would genuinely great even outside its specific setting: DJs spin northern soul seven-inches, cobwebbed chandeliers hang from the ceiling and there are actual dancers, like vintage era Chippendales, who’ll grab you by your spaghetti arms and show you the moves, as everyone else fans themselves. Another highlight: that talent contest, where one participant breaks cover and yowls Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, to the uncertainty of the Kellerman’s reps and the delight of the surrounding hens.

What is evident, though, is that, as Secret Cinema continues to grow, so do expectations. “The the biggest pisstake yet”, one irate friend informed me, having attended the previous day’s event. “The DJs were playing music from the wrong era.” But is it too much to ask when the ticket prices start at £65? Factor in an outfit (£30 for a vintage dress on their website), drinks (those piña coladas are £7), food (£10 for a lukewarm burger and fries) and £20 for all the added extras (massages, arts and crafts, ad infinitum), though, and the time of your life could cost you upwards of £150.


The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, it’s quite fair to grumble about the hour walk’n’wait to get in, the poor sound quality, the half-hour line for food (gallingly, I spy founder Fabien Riggall asking a gaggle of people how long they’d been queuing, only for him to reply “Great!” and saunter off when they politely replied “20 minutes”) at what is, essentially, a glorified film screening. On the other, the same could be true of any music festival, for which we’ll put up with wading in mud, washed-away tents and baby wipe showers, too.

Secret Cinema has become the scapegoat for Time Out-ified culture 2.0 – themed pop-up cocktail bars, kerbside food vans, dress-up parties, site specific theatre and outdoor cinema – rolled into one bundle of over-priced organised entertainment. When it goes wrong, or doesn’t hit the mark, it’s like we’re pointing the finger at the problem with gimmicky going out as a unified whole. And yet, considering there is nothing else like it, that feels somewhat unfair. Looking around the happy campers at Dirty Dancing, it’s clear that the real answer is: you get out of Secret Cinema what you put in, wallet open or not. The cynic sits on their picnic blanket waiting for the film to start, eyeballing the goings on with disdain and increasing resentment at what they’ve paid for the privilege. The enthusiast is hoping for a little frisson in the staff quarters with a dirty dancer.


Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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