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REVIEW: School Dance (Sydney Festival) | Wharf 1

If you’ve ever been a pimply, gangly teenager, you’ll relate to School Dance. And remember the embarrassing soundtrack. Sydney Theatre Company’s festival offering is nostalgic fun.

The cast of School Dance | Wharf 1

If you thought Adelaide was a drab, isolated city of churches, you’d be right. But it’s alter ego is exemplified in Windmill Theatre, a company the Sydney Theatre Company has engaged for School Dance, a production to which we can practically all relate. If you’ve ever been a pimply, gangly teenager, that is. Or a short, squat one. Or any other kind of hormone-afflicted adolescent, for the matter.

Three nerd’s nerds linger outside the school dance, afraid to show their face in there. One disincentive is the beefcake bully with mega-mullet, Derek Sturgess (played by the incredible hulk, Jack Wetere). Another is their awkwardness around those aliens known as girls.

At the behest of director, Rosemary Myers, Matthew Whittet has conceived and contrived this comic take on the rather serious business of getting to grips with the way the world really is on the wrong side of childhood. The result is either children’s theatre for adults, or adult theatre for children. Actually, both. It’s one of those thin-on-the-ground shows that knocks down all the age barriers and manages to offer plenty, right across the chronological spectrum.

In a way, it was an organic, almost inevitable outcome. Whittet (who, strangely enough, fulfils the role of Matthew), Jonathon Oxlade (who, mysteriously, inhabits a character known as Jonathon), Luke Smiles (the anachronistically-named Luke) and Myers were the team behind Fugitive, a retelling of Robin Hood. It was this experience that inspired a close-to-home, close-to-the bone, coming-of-age tale; loosely, or not so loosely, based on the formative years of the three actors.

The process began with conversations, which were whittled (or Whitteted) into shape by MW. School Dance looks through the prism of popular culture, which lends much of the humour without so much as writing a line. Just cast your mind back to ’80s fashion. But good things emerged from cinema, in particular (Ferris Bueller, Blade Runner, Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, to name but a few), as well as an incredible diversity of popular music. Think about it. Duran Duran. Pat Benatar. Bon Jovi. Prince. Michael Jackson. The reinvented AC/DC. Madonna (back when some of us wanted to make her Madoona). U2. INXS. Need I go on?

I’m not sure what it says about them, but the entire ensemble of aforementioned actors makes for world-class, best-practice geeks. And then there’s the amazing Amber McMahon, who’s across no less than four distinct female roles (Joanie, Danika, Random Girl, Hannah Ellis).

Matthew looks for all the world like a friend of mine, awkward, unco, bespectacled (and not in a fashionable or attractive way). He can’t dance to save his life: every attempt results in something far worse than epilepsy. Luke has long, straight hair and the body to match. In his tracky-daks he is the epitome of the dag, though he prefers to regard himself as drop-dead cool. Denial is paramount among the large, big L, loser class. Jonathon is short back-and-sides, boy band slick and seems to be the last one to realise he may be gay. Together, they make for a pissweak posse, but, if their romantic bond is anything to go by, there’s a camaraderie among dorks that’s admirable. I’m being facetious, of course. One of the strengths of this work is its moral centre: the goodnaturedness, forgiveness, empathy and loyalty these friends invest in each other is the very stuff that seems to have gone missing in contemporary Australian society, so it’s uplifting to see its worth gently promulgated here.

Meanwhile, big-haired Joanie (it’s as if her perm has exploded, or has become electrostatically-charged), Jono’s big sis, is commanding. No one, male or female, would dare mess with her. Danica is Joanie’s protege and, unbeknownst to both, shares something with Matthew. No one takes any notice of them. So chronic is this problem, both almost literally disappear, into another world, a parallel universe of Smurfs, Gremlins and fake scenery. There are so many things to be afraid of, they must either find the resources to materialise FDR’s axiom that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, or always be at its mercy.

School Dance is so chaotic in its approach, it shouldn’t work. On paper, it surely must’ve seemed there’s no way it could. So it’s a profound compliment to the faith of Andrew Upton, in importing it to kick-off STC’s 2013 season, Windmill’s artistic director and Whittet’s own self-belief that it should, first and foremost, get off the ground and, secondly, work so swimmingly. Even if your name is Jock Strap, you’re sure to find yourself laughing with the characters not at them. Well, mate a bit of both. But somewhere along the line, you’re likely to run into yourself in these stereotypes, composites and caricatures, so try not to laugh too loudly. Which will be a real challenge at times. For two reasons. The first: Whittet’s way with words, especially in the form of cruel jokes and pithy putdowns. The second: the capacities of Matthew, Luke and Jon (only Mark seems to be missing), not to mention the many faces of McMahon, to remain deadpan and in character, even when engaged in the most outrageous physical comedy and absurd situations.

Oxlade has also acted as designer, delivering a suburban school hall that will ring true and frighteningly familiar to any number of us. There’s the clock on the wall. The one we used to watch, wondering if assembly, or a double maths period, would ever end, or if we’d expire first. There are BMX-style bikes, affixed to sturdy frames so that the timid trio can emulate the dynamics of riding for real, to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s inhumanly husky Holding Out For A Hero, which featured in the Footloose soundtrack. There are the toilets (an amenity I studiously avoided for the whole six years of my high school career or, more precisely, nadir), scene of secretive smoking (not necessarily just cigarettes), wet-and-wild initiations of all kinds and God only knows what else. The drab curtain, behind which one stood, knees knocking, sweat pouring, before a voluntary or involuntary address to the school. There’s the chunky football hero, two storeys high and one wide, with his close-fitting tee promoting his musculature: the very reason you preferred the field position of left-right-out.

Smiles has formulated the original soundtrack, that generously embraces nostalgia, with comical juxtapositions of classic songs of the era. Choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell ought to be congratulated, too, for bringing us some of the most uproariously funny scenes.

This is an improbably, surprisingly loose experiment in theatre that ticks all the boxes and comes together almost in spite of itself, thanks to the Clag that is this particular cast and crew. It’s as if some magical spell has been invoked that makes it all work and its cast will most likely extend to you  and yours, as well.

If School Dance is indicative of the quality and originality we can expect in theatre this year, I suggest you don’t remain a wallflower.

The details: School Dance plays Wharf 1 as part of the Sydney Festival until February 3 — tickets on the STC website. The show plays a season at Merrigong Theatre Company (Illawarra Performing Arts Centre) on February 7-9 — tickets on the venue website.

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