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Saturday, 26 January 2013

STC & WINDMILL THEATRE'S 'SCHOOL DANCE' dissected by me

I was a teenager at school in the 80's. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Let's face it, every teenager really wants to be popular, loved, attractive and rejection, humiliation and being an outsider can be mortifying. All you've got are your fellow 'dags', your ostracised companions and school is your battle ground.

That's pretty much the same today- but unlike today, where there are so many distractions from the despair of your own inadequacies or insecurities in places like social networking, internet porn or virtual worlds, where you can act out your fantasies, back in the 80's your virtual world was found chiefly in the music. I distinctly remember locking myself in my room, turning up compilation albums like Rocktrip '82, or Duran Duran, INXS, Haircut 100, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and imagining myself anywhere or anyone else but me. It was the music that provided an escape from reality and thus why the sounds of the 80's are burned into the memory of everyone who was a teen back then.

Look, all of that may sound very dramatic but I loved the 80's, even if I didn't love myself back then (as opposed to now where I have a very healthy sense of ego, thank you very much). The 80's had a voice. The 60's shook up the world in protest and style, the 70's brought people together with a bit of disco contact and the 80's kind of gave power to the outsider- the Boy George, Marilyn, Kim Wilde, Michael Jackson, Do Re Mi, Bronski Beat...I mean even Joe Dolce had a hit in the 80's. You didn't have to be sexy. In fact, like a Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw, we wanted you to be odd, a little bit different. We wanted stories, identities, opinions..we wanted to be hit over the head with alternative personalities because it gave power to anyone who had something to say who wasn't in the beautiful group. And the 80's had such a visual power and was a time of such massive change that it is the perfect era to explore the narrative of those who sort to be redefined or reinvented.

Matthew Whittet's 'School Dance' explores this very notion. These are teenagers that don't fit into the cool group, who are still innocent but don't know how to speak to each other of their deepest fears or hopes or even how to admit it to themselves. They suffer in acknowledged silence. They are on the periphery of any school's social hierarchy and so Whittet's metaphor of characters turning invisible is as clear as can be. The story is told with great humour (and moves) at the local school disco, the most vulnerable of stages where the only thing worse than being invisible is to actually attract attention with your abandon of the daggiest moves on the dance floor.

'School Dance' focuses on our three teen heroes, Matthew (Whittet), Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade) and Luke (Luke Smiles), aided by the women of the story, all played by Amber McMahon, as they try to return Matthew to normal from his state of invisibility and on that journey they enter worlds where they revert back to times of simple childhood innocence, face their demons, like bully Derek Sturgess (Jack Wetere) and ultimately have to choose to grow up, risk everything and escape the chains of teenage insecurity. It's a lovely (and a love) story and being set in the 80's adds to the beauty of its telling, in all its synthesiser glory.

Originally devised by Whittet for Windmill Theatre Company and directed by Rosemary Myers, this play impressed me on many different levels. If we are embracing the notion of roles being redefined, 'School Dance' reinvents the ensemble by utilisng its creative team and putting them in the cast. Oxlade is the set designer and Smiles is the sound composer and it is tribute to the idea of the theatrical auteur- a creative team who gets to explore the story in many different roles and it is so well done it adds to the layers of the show.

Oxlade's set is fabulous. It's a school hall that we all recognise but with a series of pop ups or outs, the opening honour board, the doorway that doubles as a toilet, the stage that turns into an under the sea world or each character's home. But most loved of all was the BMX racers that emerged from the bottom of the stage. Not only is the set a reminder of the bland school environment, it then surprises and delights us with what's inside, much like our teenage characters.

The voice overs and recordings of Smiles were also wonderful and added such a sense of fun and era in 'School Dance'. The play bridges styles of heightened realism and absurdism with unabashed joy that it's easy to accept anything and everything can happen, like our own youthful hopes and fantasies.

I think you'd be hard pressed to not like this play. If I had any criticism it would be the few anachronisms, apparently deliberately placed but too few to feel like it is a choice and instead feels more like a mistake in research. Also, there are a couple of times the play slightly feels like it is dragging and may need an edit or less 'stretching the elastic' of moments that go on for just a fraction too long, such as the under the sea environment.

But these are such minor things in a play that everyone will resonate with, as almost anyone who has ever been a teenager, whether that was in the 80's or not, knows what this feels like. It's a playful handling of the most awkward age of our lives and is a pleasure to watch, even if leaves you with Laura Branigan's 'Gloria' going through your head for days.

It's a play for everyone. It even dutifully bleeps out any expletives, heightening its innocent intentions and the time. It's Whittet's dance version of 'The Breakfast Club', complete with leg warmers.

So get your 80's robot dancing polished, practise your running man and get down to Wharf 1 to see 'School Dance'.

And just for a moment, enjoy being a teenager all over again.

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