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Reviews/Theatre

It’s theatre… on skates

3 June 2021

Diving into the colourful culture of the fast paced, high risk world of roller derby, Ugly Virgins will take you on a ride that’s not exactly wild, but enjoyable and pleasantly nostalgic, writes Nina Levy.

Ugly Virgins, Lindstedt & Davies and Maiden Voyage Theatre Company ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 2 June 2021 ·

Like many kids of the era, the 1980s were my rollerskating years. Between ‘86 and ‘88 I got a bit more serious, spending Saturday mornings and one or two evenings a week honing my skills at the Morley Rollerdrome.

So when I heard that local emerging theatre makers Lindstedt & Davies (Sally Davies and Anna Lindstedt) were presenting a play that involved rollerskating, I was interested.

As promised, there’s plenty of wheel time in Ugly Virgins. Written and directed by Davies and Lindstedt, the play centres around a group of five roller derby misfits.

“Large Gunderson” is a former artistic skater keen to shake off her unhealthy obsession with that discipline, while her friend “Huntswoman” (Mikayla Merks) is a newcomer to skating who isn’t letting her inability to stay upright on her wheels for more than a few minutes at a time deter her amibitons.

There’s “Cinnamon Roller” (Danielle Antaki), a middle-aged derby skater, navigating a long-term relationship that has run its course. “Mad Splatter” (Katie McAllister) hasn’t competed since an injury sidelined her five years ago but she isn’t done with the sport.

And there’s “Nutcracker” (Courtney Cavallaro), whose aggression on the rink masks darker emotions.

As the title suggests, they’re mostly young, awkward and naïve, trying to work out their identities both inside and outside the world of roller derby.

If, like me, you’re not overly familiar with roller derby (I was also an artistic skater), fear not. This production draws its audience into the colourful culture of this fast-paced, high risk contact sport.

Lightly peppered with great one-liners, the story skates along at a breezy pace, and while the script doesn’t delve deeply into the issues it raises around the physical and mental health risks versus benefits of competitive sport, we learn enough to understand what is driving the actions of the players. This is the stuff of light-hearted teen films, nothing too confronting.

It’s the design elements that pull it together, creating an ambience that is unmistakably “roller rink”. Seated in the round, we’re surrounded by surging stripes, underpinned by a confetti freeze. From the ground level ultra violet tubes to the requisite disco ball, Rhiannon Petersen’s lighting is on point, while sound designers and composers Alex and Yell’s score and sound design marries the echoey din of the rink with original composition that nods to the 80s synthesized sounds that formed the background of my own rollerskating past. It’s all a credit to production designer Eilish Campbell.

The cast perform most scenes on skates; novel but also problematic. It’s not always easy to hear the actors over the combination of rollerskates and score, an issue exacerbated by the in-the-round seating.

Putting the cast on skates, too, creates an expectation around movement and choreography. Lindstedt was a cast member of 2019’s The Wolves (as was Cavallaro), which was beautifully choreographed, and it feels like this production (and, for that matter, the script) has taken some cues from that sport-based predecessor.

It’s not as successful here, however, perhaps because it’s difficult to portray the speed and occasional violence of roller derby in such a small space. Though the actors appear well prepared by trainer and consultant Wheels McCoy, at times the movement feels tentative. In particular, a breakout dance scene, though entertaining, could use more oomph.

That said, Ugly Virgins is well cast and performed with wit and warmth by its ensemble. As the rebellious “Nutcracker”, Cavallaro gives a particularly endearing performance.

Much like the Morley Rollerdrome in 2021, there’s something nostalgic about Ugly Virgins, with its 80s teen flick vibe and retro design. It’s worth checking out this window into the rainbow world of roller derby.

Ugly Virgins runs until 19 June 2021.

Pictured top: Katie McAllister as “Mad Splatter” (centre) and the cast of ‘Ugly Virgins’. Photo Daniel Grant.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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