[Image supplied by Sydney Theatre and copyright Lisa Tomasetti]

In the 80’s people never did anything by halves. The shoulder pads were bigger, the hair permed higher and the technology that was supposed to be portable was the size of a small child. School Dance is a new play that has a small crew but a big heart. It captures the period so well and is one of the reasons why – even a quarter of a century after the fact – people still like to look back on it with a misty-eyed and nostalgic glee.

The play premiered at Adelaide Festival last year and was written by and stars Matthew Whittet. It’s no surprise to learn that he was a child of the eighties and this shines throw in the authentic and relatable feel of the subject matter. The story follows an utter geek that shares his name on the night of the hormonal, teenage wasteland known as the school dance. All he wants to do that evening is ask a girl to dance with him and luckily he has his two friends by his side. One is the long-haired outcast, Luke (Luke Smiles who doubles as the play’s composer) and the younger, loser-in-denial, Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade, also the designer).

The setting is the school auditorium at a blue light disco that’s all flashing lights, smoke machines and 80s pop music and power ballads. The music is a key element in the show, as tunes like Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and The Vapor’s “Turning Japanese” play as you enter the theatre while Kylie Minogue’s “The Locomotion” and Technotronic-inspired beats are used during the actual show. Two particular highlights are when Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding out for a Hero” (from Footloose) is used in a sequence with BMX bikes and a boombox, while Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” brings things home to a rousing climax.

The fashion is also quirky and fun and includes a mullet, scrunchies, hot pants, acid-wash jeans, legwarmers and school uniforms not unlike those once worn by Chrissy Amphlett of Divinyls. These tend to signal where you sit on the all-important, social pecking order scale. The Hulk-like jock, Derek Sturgess (Jack Wetere) sits at the top with cool girl, Hannah Ellis (Amber McMahon) while the normal, girl-next-door Joanie is in the middle somewhere (she’s also played by McMahon who tackles two other roles here, at a grand total of four). The visuals also riff on the cultural references of the time like He-Man, My Little Pony and The Smurfs.

In the tough, school playground Matthew flounders and eventually becomes an invisible teen. But luckily he encounters Danika, a girl who suffers a similar fate. She also introduces him to a mythical land inhabited by like-minded species. It’s a strange world that is partially animated and looks like something out of Rainbow Brite, even though Gremlins also live there. This makes the show a truly mixed-media production as voice-overs from a narrator share the stage with actors occasionally lip-synching to voiceovers delivered in the same way as a trailer from an 80s action film, plus Gremlin puppets; animated worlds and creatures; and music to break-dance to.

The story itself takes a leaf out of those much-loved, teen angst films by John Hughes and is at times rather dark and ominous. But despite this, it is very easy to watch and root for the characters as they go through their respective rites of passage. The acting is quite goofy and over-the-top at times, but this works so well with the comedy because it actually makes the jokes funnier.

School Dance is a celebration for all those freaks, geeks and ghouls from the eighties who haven’t forgotten their first loves set to a back-drop of upbeat fashion, music, TV, toys and films. It’s a big, crazed and colourful affair that will make you smile, laugh and remember your past (or if you’re too young, make you wish you were there). It ultimately shows a simpler time where school was fun and often a mad world filled with more than just weird science.

Originally published on 13 January 2013 at the following website:

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