Haze starts to fill the stage before the lights rise. There's the whine of an aux cord being plugged in as the two leads take their position. The spotlights turn on, and with the growl of an electric guitar, the short-lived firmly establishes the world of Dakota of the White Flats.
The latest work from Red Leap Theatre, on this week at Q Theatre, adapts the 1991 book by Philip Ridley into a music-infused adventure that pulls out every theatrical trick in the book to create a true stage showcase. Powered by a pulpy 90s tone infused with the high-octane energy only a child could muster, all cylinders are firing here to create a delightful epic audiences won't forget quickly.
The play revolves around Dakota Pink (Hannah Lynch), a bold and strong-willed 13-year-old making the most of her life living in a dilapidated housing block; the fountain between the two towers has run dry, trolley carts lay everywhere, and the nearby river is polluted with mutant eels.
With a home life dominated by an untrustworthy house guest and a mother who has not left her chair in nearly a decade, Dakota makes do embarking on grand adventures with her best friend "Treacle" Duck (Arianna Osbourne). Their latest escapade involves trying to uncover the secrets behind Medusa (Amelia Reynolds), a reclusive actress who lives in their block, but what they learn sparks their grandest adventure yet.
It's hard to know where to start with Dakota. Director Ella Becroft and the cast – who devised the script together – alongside the creative team have created a show that never stops surprising, every element working in perfect harmony to create a delightful treat.
The cast are the main attraction. Lynch and Osborne bring a wonderful authenticity to their characters, embodying them with youthful exuberance and determination that carries the energetic characters through to the final scenes.
While the focus is on these two, Reynolds does double duty as Lucy Pink and Medusa but excels as both, infusing the characters with their own unique flavour of melodrama. Shadon Meredith brings a welcome malevolence in his brief time on stage, while Patrick Carroll's late arrival in the play's climax comes close to stealing the show with his over-the-top villain that perfectly reaches the tonal heights of the story.
Around them, the world of the White Flats comes alive in a dozen different ways it's hard to keep track. Key is the work by set designer John Verryt, who has created a world of imagination and possibility beneath a stoic, grey exterior. The highlight is how housing block is imaginatively realised in two revolving scaffolding set-ups, complete with a series of cheap blinds that are used to transform the relatively small set pieces into a dozen different combinations and rooms.
It's just one highlight of the show's production side: the music and lighting bring out the childlike wonder of the setting; detailed puppets and shadow theatre are used to fully expand the possibilities of the setting; costumes add character in a way few plays can achieve, and dance is used brilliantly for one character's flashback.
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There is a lot to digest, and sometimes the character development ends up lacking as a result of the plot and the excitement, but little can detract from the pure joy Dakota generates. This is a raucously entertaining work that is bound to delight all ages, and there's no excuse not to head along.
What: Dakota of the White Flats
Where: Q Theatre, until August 21