Watching Dead Skin—which won the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s Young Playwright’s Award and had its world premiere at the Kings Cross Theatre Sydney this week—I was impressed by the complexity of the narrative structure, the ease and flow of dialogue that authentically captures the energy and angst of youth, as well as the deft way the issues emerge as the play unfolds. More impressive still is that the playwright, Laneikka Denne, is also is an accomplished actress, starring in the lead role. Oh, and she was only seventeen-years-old when she wrote it in 2019.
As the play opens we meet seventeen-year-old Andie (Denne) while she’s working at a convenience store in the midst of a typical teenage exchange with her friend Maggie (Ruby Maishman). It’s immediately clear that Andie is interested in more than just friendship. The flirting, as romance blossoms, is joyful to watch. The awkwardness and excitement of teenage crushes, so authentically encapsulated in this incredibly honest queer coming-of-age story.
In that opening scene, Andie reveals to Maggie that she is missing something in her life—knowing her mother—while her father is emotionally absent.
The audience is then introduced to Andrea (Sarah Jane Kelly), who is also seventeen and working at a convenience store. She is being courted by an older man, who is clearly being manipulative. The dynamic and power shifts are uncomfortable to watch play out, with one man’s idea of flirting another person’s predatory behaviour.
As the show progresses, we discover that these two young women are connected; they are mother and daughter, and their first “love stories” are told concurrently.
The buds of queer romance for Andie, how she explores her sexuality, and the way in which the tender displays of first love are characterized on stage is so refreshing to see. It feels truthful and considered. We can all remember that first love feeling, and it’s beautifully evoked here.
There’s none of the angst around coming out or sexual awakening that we have seen play out on stage and screen many times; instead here queer love is presented from a distinctly Gen Z perspective, with an ease and acceptance. Andie is sassy, playful, and confident. You can see this in the way that she treats her father’s new young love interest, Audrey (Camila Ponti-Alvarez), which ranges from teenage ambivalence to a need for genuine care and affection.
By contrast in Andrea’s courtship with Henry (Abe Mitchell), Andie’s father, we see how manipulated Andrea is, as the older man uses his position of power and maturity over her. The disparity between the two narrative strands is most evident in a cleverly staged nightclub scene, where the joyful dance of Angie and Maggie is juxtaposed with what her mother experiences, which verges on the traumatic.
The fresh production design by Angus Konsti and lighting design by Martin Kinnane cleverly utilise the intimate space, while multiple media created by Roger Stonehouse works seamlessly, aiding the narrative and never distracting.
Director Kim Hardwick should be congratulated for guiding this cast and shaping such a powerful outcome. The performances are confident and assured throughout, with the young performers fully embracing their roles in a way that feels effortless.
Although the final act could use some refining, as it fell into some tropes that were otherwise absent in the rest of the play, overall it was wonderful to see such innovative work from a refreshingly queer perspective and the emergence of an exciting new voice in the upcoming generation of Australian playwrights.
By Adam van Rooijen
White Box Theatre’s Dead Skin by Leneikka Denne runs at the Kings Cross Theatre Sydney until April 17th 2021. For more details or to purchase tickets head to the Kings Cross Theatre website.