I found myself in an old town hall in Bethnal Green recently, ready to be hauled before a judge on suspicion of armed robbery. Sitting in the waiting room with a few friends, all of us dressed in suits, ties and hats, I looked around and noticed the defence attorney, making his way towards us. He explained that the judge was a real hard-ass, and that we shouldn’t look him in the eye.
The Shawshank Redemption by Secret Cinema. Photo: Future Cinema / Flickr.
One by one, we were taken through to the court room, decried as guilty men, and promptly escorted by guards to a yard. Here, we were lined up and solemnly marched across the street, before being loaded into a vintage blacked-out bus.
I have always been slightly sceptical about interactive theatre. I was always worried it would have a cheesy house of horrors vibe to it, complete with weak tongue-in-cheek banter. However, this current production of The Shawshank Redemption by Secret Cinema is one of the slickest, well-executed events I have ever attended.
From the start it was clear that the actors were not messing around. If you smirked at a guard or were seen with contraband, you would be hauled by the collar and given a well-choreographed mock beating. As the bus arrived at the prison (a disused school, painstakingly dressed up as Shawshank, complete with grey walls and barred cells), I found myself genuinely scared.
We were told to strip and change into prison overalls, with the guards yelling in our faces, before being walked through various live-acted scenes; a man being bludgeoned in the shower block, or guards searching unlucky new inmates. The scariest part of it is that you don’t know whether the inmates you are with are other ticket-holders, or whether they are part of the cast. Combined with the fact that you can get separated from your friends quite easily makes the feeling of immersion surprisingly genuine.
Once we had relaxed and adjusted (and also worked out how to buy illicit beer from the laundry guy) the atmosphere changed pretty rapidly. We were left to wonder around the building, exploring the different departments and work details, getting caught up in little snippets of drama, or stomping our feet and joining in with work songs.
The genius lies in the subtlety with which the professional actors integrate with the ticket-holders, making chat about which guard might sell you a flask of whiskey without making it sound like they give the same spiel every night. The details were incredibly thorough too; I was impressed by how everything was in keeping with the period. It wasn’t long before I started scowling at people who were taking photos with their smart phones for ruining the continuity.
It’s not cheap though. The ticket was £30, and then another £20 for a library card to secure food and drink. However, considering how expensive theatre can be, it’s pretty reasonable, especially as you’re very much a part of it.
Look out for any upcoming Secret Cinema events, they tend to do their ticket sales very surreptitiously. Usually, by the time you’re reading a write-up, they are already all gone.