School Dance – a glitter and BMX fuelled adventure ride

Matthew Whittet’s School Dance is an Adelaide import, but you’re going to feel as though it was mined right out of the absorbed memory of  the walls of whichever specific auditorium, gymnasium, or Scout Hall where your own high school dances took place.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance
Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti

It’s not easy to create a piece of honest nostalgia that feels nationally relevant, but from the audience reaction on opening night, it sounded like every single person in their seats related to this one.

Collaborators and performers Matthew Whitett (also the writer), Luke Smiles (composer), and Jonathon Oxlade (designer) have built this show out of their pasts, tackling exaggerated versions of their awkward younger selves as they wait for each other outside a school hall before going in for a dance. They will bravely face bullies, crushes (just as scary as the bullies), and the ever-present threat of total invisibility.

It’s a world of more than one reality and it’s all 80s technicolour, Rainbow Brite and Troll Doll Hair palette in the design, and something about it is so endlessly endearing that it almost shouldn’t be examined too closely – it should be experienced.

A 75-minute long, glitter-and-BMX-fuelled adventure ride through awkward geek adolescence, this play is, for all it embraces the best things about dorkishness, basically the coolest thing ever. Director Rosemary Myers has a knowing and gently sympathetic director’s hand; the play is self-deprecating across the board, but never mean to its protagonists. This play is hilarious with a sneaky heart. It’s a superb balancing act.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti
Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti

The three lead performers – Whittet, Smiles, and Oxlade – are all fantastic, though Oxlade gets the biggest laughs, along with sole female performer Amber McMahon, who wears many hats and steals many hearts (including those in the audience).

Really, it’s a play about friendship – between the three outsider boys, and then a few girls. And then there’s their world that they haven’t quite grown into yet. It’s a mash-up of heightened adolescent realism and complete fantasy and it perfectly captures that feeling of a social hierarchy.

It also explores those oases from that fairly harsh social pecking order: the people that are just as weird as you are. The things you love unabashedly. The possibility, no matter how likely, of a light at the end of the teenage tunnel.

School Dance manages something that is very tricky – creates nostalgia that feels precisely like your own life experience – and handles it with equal parts humor and understanding. It’s only January, but if you see it, it will be one of the best things you see all year. Nothing has been this funny, or this real, in far too long.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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