You’re in Year 9, a nerd. It’s the school dance. Your friends, also nerds (one’s a loser-nerd), are there. You wait outside, trying to pluck up the courage to go inside because, well, the school bully is in there and he said that if you were to show up tonight he’d break every bone in your body. And you knew he probably wasn’t kidding. Also, there are girls in there. And they’re dancing. Which is even harder.
This is the premise of School Dance – a play developed by Windmill Performing Arts and presented to much acclaim at last year’s Adelaide Festival – playing as part of the Sydney Festival by the Sydney Theatre Company. Written by Matthew Whittet, it is set “right [at] that horrible just-getting-into-girls phase,” and follows three awkward teens – Matthew, Luke and Jonathon (the play’s writer, composer and designer, respectively, playing semi-fictionalised versions of their fifteen year-old selves) – as they embark on a hormone-fuelled quest for social acceptability.
Set in the school hall-cum-gymnasium, it’s a special kind of hell, the kind that terrifies and proposes a unique set of challenges to those of a certain age, and reminds us of those times if we’re older. Though set in the 1980s, a decade I was only a part of for forty-odd days, and drawing on much of the cultural memory of that time, it is not exclusive to that time: the problems facing the characters are very much problems we are faced with today, each and every one of us. As the play progresses, Matthew becomes invisible – a metaphorical manifestation of his inability to talk to the girl he’s crushing on – and it is the attempt to make him corporeal again that forms the play’s central quest. And quest is a pretty apt description of it too; it’s a grand adventure in the mode of the Arthurian legends and the myths of old, into The Land of Invisible Teens populated by Gremlins and (unseen) Smurfs, unicorns and a slew of other 1980s phenomena.
With a beautifully written script by Whittet, School Dance is filled with more hits than you can dance to in an evening, and is in possession of a great big beating heart. Performed by Whittet, Luke Smiles, Jonathon Oxlade and Amber McMahon (with brief albeit crucial appearances from Jack Wetere as the school bully), it is full of an energy and enthusiasm that is both fresh and nostalgic simultaneously. If anything, the setting works, paradoxically, to ground it in the present-day, to make it timeless and as contemporary as anything else. Its theme of acceptance and fitting in is universal in its application as we all well know, and its stagecraft is pure theatrical magic.
There is a brilliant sequence with BMX bikes which has to be seen to be believed, and the rapid and frequent costume changes (mostly by Amber McMahon, who seems to play every female character in the play) are carried with out with such speed and ingenuity that its momentum and driving sense of purpose is never lost, never dwindles. To describe every other beautiful moment of stagecraft would be to spoil what is a joyous and boisterous seventy-five minute nostalgia trip – but special mention must be made of Amber McMahon’s unicorn, Matthew Whittet’s invisible dancing, and the departure of ‘Narrative Cohesion’ (the play’s female voice-over).
As the first theatrical experience of the year, School Dance sets the tone for the rest of the year, and as part of the city’s annual celebration of summer, it is nigh on flawless; “it’s a beautiful, fun, hilarious journey” through what it means to be a teenager, and if you don’t find yourself being sucked into the world of the characters, or singing along or dancing in your seat to the music by the play’s end, I feel sorry for you.
So, go on, dance if you want to. No one’s watching you.
Theatre playlist: 1. Safety Dance, Men Without Hats