Ah, how life imitates art. The speed at which the Red Leap Theatre crew bolted out of Auckland on Valentine’s Day to get to Whangārei just before the midnight lockdown – to perform the world premiere of new show Dakota of the White Flats a few days later – must have at least matched the speed with which 14-year-old protagonists Dakota Pink and Treacle Duck hurtle through their urban wasteland of a home.
In fact, speed and a sense of adventure (bordering on peril) are also defining characteristics of this atmospheric, downright fun show. The devised work takes the book of the same name, by much-awarded English author Philip Ridley, as its leaping-off point. True to Red Leap’s kaupapa of presenting “women-led theatre”, this time the voices of young women – brave, mischievous and with a dose of punk attitude – are let loose.
The dystopian world our heroines inhabit is harsh and bleak, full of derelict buildings, pollution and hard edges. Two triangular scaffolding towers on wheels (reminiscent of the staging in Kororāreka – The Ballad of Maggie Flynn) are the key pieces of the set by John Verryt, representing the rundown housing estate that was once the ‘white flats’. They’re frequently pushed together and swung around, and are covered by sections of Venetian blinds that are drawn up and down to amusing effect.
The plot sticks fairly closely to the book: Dakota’s mother Lily waits at home for the husband who left her more than a decade ago, as Dakota (Hannah Lynch) and Treacle (Ariaana Osborne) roam the estate, dodging danger and running into Medusa, a washed-up actress on a desperate mission. When the dynamic duo try to help Medusa, they must venture across a polluted canal full of mutant eels to a foreboding house on an island.
Delivering Red Leap’s physical performances and innovative staging keeps the company of five very busy indeed. Cast members create clever shadow work from ordinary objects and turn shopping trolleys into feral dogs, sometimes rushing between props at a rate of knots. The action clips along at a mighty pace, shifting from gleeful adventure to video game-like perspectives and moments of farcical horror.
In Ella Becroft’s mainstage directorial debut, part of the show’s heart comes from the contrast of youthful energy with the broken hearts and unfulfilled dreams of the older female characters. Amelia Reynolds plays Medusa and Lily with a lovely mix of pride and hope bordering on delusion, while Lynch and Osborne throw themselves into their roles as ride-or-die friends with commitment and swagger. Lutz Hamm (as Henry Twig) and Patrick Carroll (as Lassiter Peach) both revel delightfully in their slimy characters, though for laughs, the cameo by a silverfish comes out trumps.
The sound and lighting design (by Eden Mulholland and Rachel Marlow respectively), plus some live music from the cast, create a gritty, immersive atmosphere that takes the audience from blown-out soundscapes to an underwater world. It’s noisy, dark, and at times bombards the senses – but there’s light, too.
As with any new show, there are niggles. The bust-up between Dakota and Treacle in a moment of danger feels contrived and rushed. Some lines are uttered at such a pace that they become merely words spoken instead of dialogue lived. It only takes a beat or two to let key emotional moments sink in and speak volumes.
Still, these aren’t dealbreakers. With Dakota of the White Flats, Red Leap has delivered entertaining, imaginative theatre that pays homage to gutsy girls, friendship and hope. Buckle up for the ride.