School Dance ran at the Sydney Theatre Company from January 11-February 3, and at Merrigong from February 7-February 9. By Matthew Whittet, directed by Rosemary Myers.
The 1980s are a special decade for me. Not just because I was born then (I was) but because of the memories I have. A lot of people can’t remember their early childhood, but there’s one thing I remember really clearly from mine. The music. My mother was an aerobics teacher, and she used to take me along to her classes when she couldn’t find anyone to watch me. I have a stupid amount of 1980s dance music uploaded in my brain. I don’t think about it a lot, but when I do, it always makes me smile. This is the place that School Dance took me to.
Baudrillard has this idea that things that make us nostalgic allow us to effectively become tourists in our own lives. Like any tourist, we go and see the cool things – in the case of the 1980s, it’s the music and the clothes and the whole retro enterprise – but we gloss over other stuff. It’s really interesting thinking about this alongside School Dance. Sure, on the surface it seems like fun and games and glitter, but there is darkness beneath, very real fears that drive the three boys at its heart – a drunk father, a terrifying bully, and the fear of literally fading into the background forever. It might be a tourist trip, but it’s also a quest. School Dance is at once a relatively realistic take on teenage angst, a surreal piece of art, and a John Hughes movie. It has just the right mix of nostalgia and drama, humour and heartfeltedness, irony and sincerity. It’s at once hilarious and humorous, a tribute and a message.
School Dance is the story of Matt (Matthew Whittet) and his friends Luke (Luke Smiles) and Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade). They are all losers (of different breeds, as the hilariously meta voiceover reminds us). Matt is so desperate to ask popular girl Hannah Ellis (Amber McMahon, who plays several different female roles in the show) to dance and so equally convinced that she will say no that he begins to become invisible. He, his friends, and an unlikely invisible ally (also Amber McMahon) must overcome dangers untold and hardships unnumbered to get back to the school dance, where Matt must finally step up, be brave, and pursue his desires. Also, there is a unicorn (Amber McMahon again).
The teen genre is often written off for being simplistic, but School Dance clearly exposes that this is not the case. It is a deceptively complicated piece of theatre – beneath all the music and the laughs, there are emotional layers waiting to be peeled back. The invisibility and centrality of Matt highlights the fact that the loser is often the hero in the typical 1980s piece, and his journey shows that just because he is beaten down he is not automatically heroic – Matt must earn his payoff. He must go through a transformative journey to realise what he really wants at that school dance, against a backdrop of glitter curtains, mogwai, and truly radical dancing.
I loved School Dance. I have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s in me, and I can’t see how anyone who didn’t have a soft spot for the decade of shoulder pads and Martha and the Muffins wouldn’t really enjoy this show. In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym talks about nostalgia as “a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values” (8). She also writes that “irony is not opposed to nostalgia” (354). School Dance strikes the perfect balance between the two. It creates the 1980s as an enchanted world, one in which our heroes must go on a quest, and it laughs at itself at the same time. It is at once a fairytale, a Dali painting, a period drama, and a Spandau Ballet concert. Most of all, it is enormous fun, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who even vaguely remembers the 80s. And anyone who went to high school, really – that kind of thing transcends decades and becomes universal.
(Sidebar: Gold by Spandau Ballet is one of the songs I use when I’m in a tough place with my thesis and need to get motivated. I blast it loud and pretend I’m in an inspirational montage from an 80s movie. School Dance made that fantasy that much more potent. Thanks, Windmill Theatre!)