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Review: Dead Skin at KXT

Review by Carly Fisher

KXT is back at 100% capacity and just in time too as its newest production, Dead Skin by Laneikka Denne, sets to sell out its run. There is unquestionably a palpable excitement in the air on opening night as Sydney’s theatre scene turn up to support new writing and see what there is to be made of this new, somewhat abstract, Australian story written by a local playwright during her high school years.

To focus on the playwright’s age, though used as a common marketing tool and mentioned by most in reference to this play, I feel, stands only to disservice or undermine the quality of Denne’s writing - irrespective of the age that it was written at, this is a strong piece of new Australian theatrical writing that deserves credit. I would be lying if I said that this show was for everyone but that aside, the actual script and quirkiness of the dialogue is testament to Denne’s talent and I look forward to see what comes next from this playwright…particularly because of how refreshing it is to see works from new, female, Australian playwrights take to the stage.

Personally, if I am being honest, I preferred the script itself to the production - though very well performed by a cast of strong, talented actors, the production elements for me were largely distracting and, to be frank, very predictable.

The script is episodic in its structure - short scenes allow us to jump time and space and follow the characters on a mirroring mother-daughter journey of self discovery, love and the complexities of growing up. The choice to end every single one of the many scenes with a black out felt somewhat uninspired - as an audience member, being consistently thrust between light and dark gets tiresome and the flow of the piece is haltered so regularly that it feels like a staccato variation of what could have been an interesting melody. Though the set was minimal, even a decision to have the actors move or interact with the space with some more ‘choreography,’ for lack of a better term, through these scene changes could have made for a much more interesting watch. Instead, the blocking throughout felt somewhat stagnant and at times, restrictive for the actors.

Whilst Martin Kinnane’s lighting served to produce many beautiful silhouettes and interesting colours to heighten certain scenes, I felt that there may have been a little bit too much reliance on lighting in so much as I started to notice that in nearly every emotional peak or turn, there was yet another lighting change. That said, though perhaps a few too many cues for me, I did think that the lighting served the production exceptionally well and that Kinnane continues to prove why he is such a sought after lighting designer.

Angus Consti’s production design worked a little less well for me. Walking in, I found the set to be quite striking with its clean lines and use of illumination to outline the playing space. Unfortunately, those same lines around the stage ended up throwing some far too bright lighting during the show that made it uncomfortable, because of the angle of my seat, to watch the scene in detail and, consequently, need to look into the light. I thought that the use of multiple sized screens, particularly the one on hinges to act as the grocery shelves, was a clever and creative choice that made the basic set design seem more elevated and well considered. I would have definitely liked to have seen some more interesting props or basic set pieces enter the space for particular scenes, especially if there was going to be a black out to introduce these items. The costuming was simple but realistic, but ultimately not particularly noteworthy.

The sound design droned on for me - many of the sounds were too didactic and too much of the show was underpinned with these sound effects. For some audiences, I appreciate that the sounds may have set the scene for them, but for me, I found that the quality performances on stage were enough to need only minimal sound effects rather than a soundtrack for the play’s entirety.

And so to focus on those strong performances, much kudos must be given to Ruby Maishman, Sarah Jane Kelly, Abe Mitchell, Laneikka Denne and Camila Ponti-Alvarez who each delivered a strong performance that ultimately contributed to an excellent ensemble. At different moments of the show, different cast members seem to stand out more, however I must say that I was completely taken by everything that Sarah Jane Kelly (Andrea) did from the moment she first entered the stage. I found Kelly’s strong command of this character and free-spirited but calculated approach to Andrea exceptionally interesting and wished that this small character could have been featured more prominently throughout the piece…particularly after discovering her pregnancy (no spoilers there…she is the main character’s mother after all).

Camilla Ponti-Alvarez plays Audrey, Andy’s (Denne’s character) slightly too young step mother, and proves throughout her performance just how strong of an actor she is. Whilst the early Audrey scenes hold little impact, it is clear the Ponti-Alvarez has restrained with pure professionalism in these earlier scenes to allow the emotional arc of Audrey to pack a real punch. She succeeds beautifully.

Ruby Maishman is relatable, witty and sharp as Andy’s new love interest, Maggie, yet craftfully holds enough allure that we can tell from early on that we are not yet being exposed to the full picture. Whilst some directorial decisions, for me, exposed her ending a little too early, I have to say that I appreciated the mystery of this character and thought that Maishman’s performance of her was commendable.

Representing the males, Abe Mitchell delivers a solid performance as Henry. Despite the high regard in which I hold Denne’s writing, I must admit, I found this character intentionally unlikeable and positioned as an aggressive misogynist but without the benefit of a back story, explanation or any attempt at redemption later in the piece. This to me felt like somewhat of an oversight because, although I could imagine what Denne’s intentions were in creating a character like this, without this ‘fleshing out,’ it seemed an oversight in an otherwise well considered script.

Rounding out the cast is Denne herself in the lead role of Andy. Whilst I felt that there were times where the character needed more variation through Denne’s performance, ultimately Denne led the cast with gusto and with a well considered characterisation of her play’s lead. Knowing how exceptional of an actor Denne can prove to be, I felt that the ‘youth’ and immaturity in the dialogue of her character sometimes restricted us, the audience, from seeing her full potential as an actor, however, to counter that, much respect must be given to Denne for her complete commitment to this character and willingness to throw every aspect of her being into the role.

This show is unquestionably pitched to a younger audience and I think that older teens through to those in the mid to late twenties will really enjoy its relatability in both language and themes.

I have said before that I think that Laneikka Denne is a name to watch in our Sydney theatre scene. Whilst I would be lying if I said I loved this particular show, I stand by that statement 100%. Watch this space, she is a name to remember and this production just proved she is destined to go far.

Image Credit: Jasmin Simmons


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