School Dance
Windmill Theatre @ Space Theatre
11:00am, Fri 9 Mar 2012 – oooh, it’s my birthday :)
I’m not exactly proud to admit that School Dance hadn’t even made my Festival shortlist, but the early word-of-mouth was overwhelmingly positive. By the time my interest had been sufficiently aroused, I’d blocked it out of my schedule… so I called out for a very rare favour. I discovered that there were a handful of school-group matinées, and managed to score a ticket – and, in the process, managed to keep my streak of ill-planned early starts on my birthday going.
In front of an instantly familiar school house / dance hall, we’re introduced to Matthew, Jonathon, and Luke – three nerdy friends battling their way through high school, encountering all the stereotypes that we’ve seen a million times before: unrequited yearnings for the attention of the most popular girl in school, the hovering threat of the school bully (an incredibly buff Jim Rose), and the stresses that are applied on their friendships as a result of Growing Up. The focus of the School Dance world is, of course, the eponymous Dance: despite his virtual invisibility to the vast majority of the school (Rose’s bully Derek excepted, of course), Matthew is desperate to meet the beautiful Hannah there, in the hope that all will thereafter be right with the world.
Naturally, he manages to do so – I must’ve watched a hundred teen movies in the eighties that had, at heart, the same plot. Act One, introduce outcast characters plus unrequited love interest who barely knows of her suitor’s existence. Act Two, the hero’s journey. Act Three, resolution against all odds, Cupid’s Arrow hits, everyone’s happy.
And if that was all that School Dance delivered, that’d be a bit disappointing.
But there’s much more to School Dance than that. It takes that premise of “virtually invisible” and creates something more tangible out of it, taking us on a trippy little side journey that manages to both hammer the development of the hero, as well as create an avenue for a plethora of pop-culture references to thrill the older members of the audience – is that Gizmo the Mogwai in the background? Was that a He-Man reference? Is that a unicorn… or a My Little Pony? And why is that Teletubby there? And, as much as I loved the nostalgia-tweaking spot-the-reference in the second act, it’s the most contemplative and weighty part of the performance – and as a result, it slows down proceedings somewhat. Luckily, the third act is a fast-paced, rollicking denouement that leaves us on a high.
The strength of School Dance, however, is in the production. The sets are brilliantly designed, with a school that triggers false memories (and the brilliant use of the girl’s toilets), and the lighting is superb – the glare of the lights in the dance and the murky moonlight are both incredibly convincing, and the management of Matthew’s invisibility is fantastic. There’s some other stunning tricks put to great use, too: the muffling of songs from the foreground when the case “leave” the dance, the narrator freely interacting with the actors (stating the obvious – “she leaves”), the bike-riding scenes generate a genuine sense of frantic motion, and Amber McMahon’s My Little Ponified unicorn was beautifully enacted…
And that brings me to the cast. Whilst Messrs Whittet, Oxlade, and Smiles all play their namesakes (Matthew, Jonathon, and Luke, respectively) convincingly, Amber McMahon gets to play all the female characters… and is quite brilliant in doing so, creating a plethora of believable girls (and unicorns!) onstage. And the cast’s dance moves are all wonderfully performed – especially Gold.
And the soundtrack… oh man, the soundtrack was itself a work of art. A gorgeous synth score burbles along in the background, but it’s the punctuation of the songs of my school years that entice – Echo Beach, Girl U Want, Smalltown Boy, and The Safety Dance are all used perfectly, and my only complaint would have to have been the use of the SAW version of Kylie’s Locomotion – surely everyone knows the Australian version was better! ;)
And when Gold punches out the show, leaving the cast bowing to a rapturous crowd in front of that iconic chorus, I was left feeling hopelessly uplifted: triumph of the underdog, and all that. But, most of all, I left genuinely happy, thrilled that I’d just seen such a wonderfully compassionate and warm-hearted production… and knowing that hundreds of kids had just seen that too. Maybe they missed some of the more obscure references, but it’s impossible to think that they couldn’t have found something familiar and affirming in School Dance. As a performance, it was wonderful; as edutainment, it was spectacular.