Wednesday, January 16, 2013

School Dance by Matthew Whittet

L-R Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet, Luke Smiles, Jonathon Oxlade
School Dance by Matthew Whittet.  Windmill Theatre (Adelaide) at Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, for Sydney Festival, directed by Rosemary Myers.  Composer, Luke Smiles; designer, Jonathon Oxlade; lighting, Richard Vabre; choreographer, Gabrielle Nankivell; animation, Chris More.  January 10 to February 3, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 15

I remember the 1980s.  My senior high school drama students began the decade still seeking the deep and meaningful within themselves in the final throes of 1970s ‘creative drama’.  By 1986 they were writing a new form of fantasy theatre, and wanted to be taught performance skills so they could show the stuff of their weird imaginations to the world.

And weird it is tonight indeed.  Here I am watching these drama students (not mine personally) a quarter of a century later putting all that learning and excitement, all those technical and acting skills that have become the assumed norm for the modern professional actor / dancer / singer / audio, lighting, stage and costume designer, on stage at the Wharf.  Wow!  It just so reminds me!

And, of course, I was also there, supervising the breathalyser machine at the door into the school social – the school dance – in the canteen.
The boys on their bikes

Since the writer, designer and composer also performed as the three boys at a school dance, about Year 9, and hardly prepossessing, there was every opportunity for nostalgia.  They even used their own names for their characters.  The images and sound are taken from the popular television and films they knew from their teenage days.  But what they have done is to create an original, whimsical, humorous and at times satirical fantasy about how a nerdy girl and boy become invisible, discover their attraction for each other and so become visible once more.

For a modern, young audience, the show works as an absurdist cartoon take-off of shows like High School Musical, while maintaining an integrity of understanding about teenage sexual attraction.  There is no Disney sentimentality here.

For the generation that these performers represent, now well into their thirties, the show is a light-hearted thoroughly enjoyable reflection on their younger days.

For an older generation again, such as mine, there is amusement in remembering that period, but in addition an awakening, or at least a re-awakening, to how social changes are encapsulated in the young, at the point of their breaking through into early adulthood.  And how each generation therefore has its own distinguishing character. 

To complete the cast, the boys need their menacing hulk nemesis, which Maori performer Jack Wetere creates wonderfully well – stopped in the end from destroying all, by Luke aiming the remote and pushing the pause button.

And, of course, they need a girl.  Amber McMahon justifiably was awarded an extra burst of applause tonight after playing all the necessary girls, invisible and visible, fantasy and real.  Her costumes were magnificent, and there was a palpable sense of amazement that she could get out of one and into another so quickly.

Choreography, and skilled dance and mime performance,  is the key to this show: several times tonight a dance sequence received spontaneous applause, as we might have responded to a jazz soloist or an operatic aria.

School Dance, then, is 75 minutes of thorough theatrical satisfaction – and you’ll be surprised to find yourself dancing out of the auditorium to an 80s beat.  The energy of this show is catching.
In the invisible world: Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon as Danika
Amber McMahon as Joanie as the fantasy unicorn making an urgent phone call

Amber McMahon as Hannah Ellis

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