Saturday 24 June 2023

SOCIAL DANCE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Social Dance
WHEN: 21 June - 1 July 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosive Factory)
PERFORMED BY: Anna Burgess, Pascale Fester-Bell, Andrew Hwang, Heather Valentine, and Sam Zawadi
AV & SOUND BY: Tim Palstra
Sam Zawadi and Anna Burgess - photo by Farrow Photography

Family dinners are always fraught and the one being held by the Spittles at the Explosives Factory over the next week or so is no exception. But Social Dance this dinner party is an exception! The Spittles have invited 30 or so people to join them for an introduction to their new social etiquette instructional series in the hope of getting sign-ups for the whole package.

The Spittles are a family who appear to have great wealth and the mother, Suzie (Anna Burgess) in particular, exudes an aura of social superiority along with her Toorak tones, power suit, and viciously high heels. Her long suffering husband, Grahame (Sam Zawadi), is ineffectual in calming her down as she stresses over uncooked chicken, a family curse, and the need for everything and everyone to be perfect at all times. The son, Toby (Andrew Hwang), is late and Charlie (Pascale Fester-Bell) is sulking. Thank goodness the French exchange teacher, Pascale (Heather Valentine) is here to settle everyone down...or is she?

In Social Dance Laura McKenzie has tried to create a wonderfully silly farce which slides into magical realism. In a show filled with family secrets, poor communication, and a desperate need to 'keep up with the Joneses' there are moments of great hilarity. In an interview McKenzie describes the show as silly and she absolutely achieves that in the combination of characters and circumstances. Social Dance has all of the ingredients of good farce.

I know I keep saying this, but I am going to keep on doing it until theatre makers listen. What Social Dance needs is good dramaturgy. It needs script dramaturgy and an experienced theatre director would have helped too because McKenzie evidently doesn't have an understanding of spatial power on a stage and it is evident the cast are not strong in this area as well - which is not a comment on their 'acting'. All the characters are very fully formed and recognizable as archetypes which is what makes farce work.

Social Dance has powerful pre-performance framing. As you climb the stairs to the stage space a strong smell of something delicious baking fills the air and jaunty swing tunes are playing. As you mill, waiting to be seated, you will see the most amazing 40 seat circular table dressed elegantly for a formal dinner. A slide is projected on the wall announcing the title of the evening's presentation just as happens at all good corporate events.

Suzie and Grahame enter and invite us to sit and eat the bread roll provided. The first etiquette lesson begins as Suzie explains which roll is ours to eat - left or right. The slide changes and, rather than a food menu, we get the agenda of topics planned across the evening, including saying grace and place mat origami. As the characters enter and take there assigned seats around the table the scene is set. A sexual aura is detectable between Suzie and Patrice and the tension is palpable between Patrice and Grahame. Charlie evidently has secrets and Toby is completely befuddled by it all. 

Whilst the bones of greatness are there, this magnificent table becomes the death of Social Dance. Despite there being an exorbitant amount of centre stage available for the performers in the middle (the table is built like a doughnut), for the entire evening the cast just skirt around the outside and shout across the room at each other. Oh, and there is no dancing - which would have been a great use of that centre abyss by the way. There is so much potential for Charlie and Toby to slink under the table and have a real confrontation in the centre, or for Grahame to move in and confront Patrice or console Suzie, etc. Instead the cast are mostly disconnected from each other and we become disconnected from them.

I also struggled with the slide into magical realism - partly because farce has no realism so when you try and make an argument that oysters are the same as humans or that people can turn into falcons the brain has nowhere to go to join the dots together. The world created in the farce - a Toorak lampoon - doesn't have a place for those things to exist in.

A few years ago I saw a show which had a similar set up as Social Dance. Blood Is Thicker Than Hummus had the same idea of family disfunction and the communion created over a dinner table. What that show did, and what Social Dance needs to do, was invite us to care about the characters. As funny as the archetypes are in Social Dance, we don't have enough reason to care about the characters. Except maybe Grahame... This is partly the writing, but in particular, the staging means we never get to connect.

I have to say I loved seeing the Collins St Falcons. I remember watching the chicks hatch a year ago and watched as their mother tried - and failed - to get them to eat a dead bat. It was great to see what strong and beautiful young birds they have grown to become over the past year.

Social Dance looks fantastic and you can tell the cast is having a great time. They just need to develop the skills and techniques needed to allow the audience into the show. At the moment it feels like a bunch of kids playing their own little game around the grown-ups table. 

2 Stars

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