Over the past two weeks Laura Marling has been the guest of the Grand Eagle hotel, a timewarp 1927 stately home located just outside of central Hackney.
As this elegant establishment’s time draws to a close, it seems fitting to attempt a (hopefully spoiler free) critique of this event, Secret Cinema’s first foray into the world of live music.
Most people who take an interest in such things will by now understand what Secret Cinema offers, the opportunity to immerse oneself in a time or a world different to our own, for a limited period; a world which revolves around a film which is screened at the end.
The new Secret Music undertaking is similar, with the début featuring Marling as the luminous centre around which a jazz-age party revolves; replete with bright-young-things, gin cocktails, and a lively serving class of maids, doormen, chauffeurs and cooks whose drama simmers under a thin veneer.
The proposition seems attractive; dress up in your most glorious evening wear with a bouquet of flowers, and bring interest piquing props (including, old books, records, instruments, a small gift, and, most mysteriously, a picture of a former lover). There is food and drink galore, nooks and crannies to explore, and new and interesting people to spark up with. It’s ‘immersive’.
However, while superficially all seemed beautiful and glamorous, with a seedy underside to explore if one so wished, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. Admittedly, everyone who goes to these events will have a different experience, depending on which rooms you stumble into, and at what time. And you do, to an extent, make up your own story, in an ideal world reaping however much you sow.
Although steeped in grandeur, this inaugural musical spectacular seemed to lack a little of the depth of its cinematic counterparts. Some rooms, notably on the ground floor, had exquisite, sometimes surprising, set pieces, but others seemed like afterthoughts, decked out because they couldn’t be left looking like an abandoned school.
Granted, you make of such events what you will, but the necessary catalyst of actors, or any form of structure, appeared largely absent. While some people report receiving exciting ‘love notes’ which drew them into the evening, others just wandered around disconsolately, not knowing what they should be doing with a satchel full of old books* (recognising this, perhaps, the organisers have recently added some more instructions to the Facebook page).
The drinks were delicious, and some of the installations were wonderful, but the promised immersive experience didn’t quite develop. Although it was wonderful to watch Marling play one song as a surprise guest at her own party, it was also disappointing to discover after the fact that the wonderful Smoke Fairies had played, unannounced, in the chapel.
The only real direction provided was direction to the grand finale, the headline set itself, to which everyone filed, accompanied by the ominous ticking of an ancient clock.
The performance will have been the main draw for many, seeing the rest as a pleasant aside. There was no doubt from the pre-gig chatter that the singer was the focus of the evening, and her performance was wonderful.
Almost preternaturally shy, in a perfectly chosen white dress, she performed most of the concert solo, with her band disappearing after the first song. Strong yet vulnerable vocals, now with a slight American edge, powered the audience through a short set of mainly new songs. Focusing on new album Once I Was An Eagle, she did venture a little further into her back catalogue, but the brevity of the set didn’t leave much opportunity.
While Marling was wonderful throughout the evening, and the performance, a short setlist coupled with her strictly enforced no-encore policy meant that the house lights went up startlingly early.
As the hotel guests were left to continue exploring the house and gardens, or collect their mobile phones and leave (a strict no mobile policy enhanced the ‘20s atmosphere, as well as making for a more concentrated, carefree evening), the evening seemed more of a sham than expected at first.
However enjoyable an experience, the high cost, in terms of tickets, booze, and ‘props’, coupled with the shortness of the final performance and lack of overall interactivity, brought to mind the Wildean adage on knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. You can’t put a cost on experience, but this one seemed a little lacking in value.
*Feeling a little short changed, I must confess I took my record (Bohemia Rag, I’m now very fond of it) home with me.