The excitement of pop-up theatre

The phenomenon of pop-up, secret theatre is taking the world by storm and London is very much the vanguard of this trend.

A scene from The Railway Children, performed at London's Waterloo Station.
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This week, a new version of E Nesbit's children's weepie The Railway Children arrived in London. And it really did arrive. In this new adaptation, the famous steam train actually pulled into a specially adapted platform at Waterloo Station. Either side of the track, the wide-eyed audience were perched on 1,000 temporary seats. All of a sudden, being "treated" to flimsy sets in traditional West End venues seems a bit dated, doesn't it?

The Railway Children might not be the first time that site-specific theatre on this scale has been attempted, but it's another example of how we now expect more from the culture we consume. Simply turning up to a venerable theatre, willing to have our disbelief suspended, no longer seems that appetising. London is very much the vanguard of this "pop-up" trend. Behind King's Cross railway station, the dance company Sadler's Wells last month held late-night performances in an art-deco motel they had constructed for new show Electric Hotel. In a few weeks' time, the English National Opera will stage The Duchess Of Malfi in an empty office block in the East End, with the audience walking through the production to experience different parts of the story.

Such undertakings aren't entirely new: ENO are collaborating with Punchdrunk, an experimental theatre company that last year produced the genuinely frightening It Felt Like A Kiss at the Manchester International Festival, with guidance from Damon Albarn and the film-maker Adam Curtis. Once again it was a promenade performance in a disused office block. But it's not only the sheer amount of pop-up events in 2010 that is striking, it's that such undertakings are being replicated across the world. Secret Cinema, for example, is well known for its exciting approach to screenings of films in London. So an event in New York was an obvious next step, and happily it went down a storm last week. No surprise there: it's genuinely innovative stuff. After dressing themselves to match an unspecified movie (albeit hinted at pretty strongly via Secret Cinema's Twitter feed) the audience is transported to a mysterious venue and picks its way through an intriguing world matching the film, with actors stumbling around the "set" before the movie itself is shown.

So just as the real train is integral to The Railway Children, the Secret Cinema creator Fabien Riggall has said that these "real" environments are key to the enjoyment of the films they show. New York was treated to the Swinging Sixties movie Blow Up for Secret Cinema's debut screening. It was held in a Brooklyn photographic studio, with live music and fashion shoots creating the Mary Quant-esque atmosphere. The message was clear: Secret Cinema is the antidote to the passive, multiplex experience movie-going has become.

But without question, the hyper-connected world of social media powers the pop-up phenomenon in a way that wasn't possible before Twitter and Facebook. Creatives such as Riggall would have been unlikely to embark on such undertakings without the knowledge that they had an audience eagerly waiting for them. It's a similar story in the art world. In Sydney, Dominic Roswell's Bicker Gallery sets up roaming art exhibitions that have popped up in disused shops and warehouses - the venue revealed at the last minute via an online mailing list. No matter the quality of the art, a sense of excitement is fostered by the secret location and the unique possibilities it might offer.

In fact, it's almost become de rigeur for a forward-thinking city or country to encourage temporary events in odd venues. Last month in Paris, Dior exhibited 32 dresses from the past six years for one night only. In sleepy Sardinia, a cabal of designers and artists have opened galleries stacked with cutting-edge work to welcome (and no doubt cash in on) the yachts that arrive at Porto Cervo for the summer.

Of course, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe would say that it's been hosting myriad shows in churches, halls, caverns and tents for decades. That's actually because there's genuinely nowhere else to house them. This pop-up phenomenon is something altogether different: children's theatre at a railway station or opera in an office block is exciting because the locations impact on the drama. So the fact that there are people prepared to push such boundaries should be celebrated and encouraged. It's not quite limitless though. Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as a site-specific theatre piece might just be harder to pull off...