Dead Skin: Teen Writer Explores Young, Queer Love in Compelling But Scattered New Play

Dead Skin, a new play at Kings Cross Theatre, is a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman yearning to be loved. Brought to life by an ensemble of talented actors, this coming-of-age story about a queer teenage girl discovering love for the first time, sometimes suffers at the hands of a young writer who doesn’t know what to do with it.

Laneikka Denne is a promising young talent from Western Sydney who wrote Dead Skin when she was only 17. In this production, she also stars as Andie, a queer teen with a crush on her classmate, the bold and charismatic Maggie (Ruby Maishman). As she falls in love for the first time, she yearns for the parental love she never experienced and tries to imagine and discover the mother she never knew (Sarah-Jane Kelly). Her father (Abe Mitchell) is emotionally distant and refuses to tell her anything, so it’s up to his twenty-something girlfriend Audrey (Camila Ponte Alvarez) to try (and fail) to assume a substitute-parent role.

The play is told through parallel storylines of teenage Andie falling in love with Maggie as a teen, accompanied by flashbacks of Andie’s teenage mum falling in love with her (much older) dad (Abe Mitchell). This storytelling device is a simple but moving reflection on the highs and lows of young love. It is during these couple scenes that the show is at its best, propelled by the dynamic chemistry of Denne and Maishman (Andie and Maggie), and Mitchell and Kelly (Henry and Andrea). Frustratingly, sometimes the play gets too bogged down in stylistic flourishes that detract from these two central relationships.

This is a recurring problem in the text. Denne has the foundation of a really moving piece here, but sometimes she tries too hard to make the storytelling more complicated than it needs to be. Kim Hardwick does her best with the text and has elicited some fantastic chemistry in the rehearsal room. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Dead Skin just needs a few more rewrites and rounds of edits, and then we will have landed on something quite beautiful.

Some of the loveliest moments came as we experienced young love through Andy’s eyes. Denne and Maishman have electric chemistry as the young, giddy teens falling in love. Denne’s writing and the pair’s performances offer a painfully accurate depiction of the silly, giggly, joyful way teen girls often talk to each other. Although this commitment to authentic impersonation becomes tiresome after a while and starts to feel one-note. The scenes between Maggie and Andy are at their most compelling when the writing finally cuts the giggling and theatrics and lets the girls be honest and vulnerable with each other.

Dead Skin (2021, White Box Theatre, Photography by Jasmin Simmons)

The cast is very strong all round, although as a performer and a character, Denne’s Andie feels the least versatile. She has a very emotive face and beautifully conveys Andie’s vulnerability and torment, but often the performance feels unvaried. Maishman is initially charming as the romanticised version of Ruby in Andie’s head, before her performance shifts gears in the final act and we see Ruby as her own person. Mitchell’s performance as Andy’s dad Henry is sleazy enough to repulse the audience, but charming enough that, through the eyes of a teenage girl, you can see the appeal. Ponte-Alverez offers much-needed comedic relief as Henry’s young, new girlfriend who is trying way too hard to fix everyone around her. Kelly brings wonderful depth to Andrea, a sharp young woman who actively resists falling in love but finds herself painfully infatuated all the same.

The story spans a variety of places and times, and director Hardwick has chosen to keep the design elements neutral to emphasise the text. Angus Consti’s design is clean, simple and versatile, nicely complemented by Martin Kinnane’s and Chrysoulla Markoulli more experimental lighting and sound design.

Denne’s story offers a painful look at two young women desperate to be loved but aching from the pain of choosing people who won’t love them back. At times Denne and Hardwick’s commitment to abstract storytelling confuses the story rather than helping it.

It feels like a lot of the marketing around this show has fixated on the youth of playwright and star Laneikka Denne—only 17 when she wrote it. This youth feels like both a blessing and a curse. Denne is talented and her writing, which insightfully captures the pangs of growing up, shows a lot of promise. I look forward to her next play, and hope that her future projects can channel her considerable ambition into a more controlled story.

Dead Skin is on until April 17th, however is has been incredibly popular and had a sold-out run. If you’re lucky, you might be able to snag tickets here.

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