Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River | Stone Soup and Griffin IndependentLeft – Bjorn Stewart and Francesca Savige. Cover – Francesca Savige, Grant Cartwright. Photos – Robert Catto

Until now I had always viewed a script like an instrument to be played by the actors and director to different melodic effect.

Tonight I had that notion flipped on its head as I watched a piece of text so secure in its maturity and form that it could play its actors like strings on a cello. Granted I didn’t find all the strings quite in tune, but the work had the strength to still weave a melody that engaged my sense of ‘Australian-ness’ without any of the cultural cringe that so often accompanies this undertaking. Here were finely observed details of life and the heart, uniquely Australian in origin but universally relevant and recognizable. I found myself quite literally on the edge of my seat on several occasions – pulled forward by a concept so simply and clearly stated as to cut through to the soul. Time and time again, I was transfixed by the beauty of a single idea eloquently expressed.

And this is where this work succeeds in its Australian identity where so many others have failed. It feels ‘authentic’, a much over-used word I know, but one that seems totally appropriate on this occasion. There is no fuss, no overwriting, just sharp, concise moments of clarity that reveal a series of truths. People truly in touch with their land, often don’t need to speak much. When they do its usually something important. And this is why the collage of time sequence is also so structurally successful in the work. The truth is universal and endures. When it happens is almost irrelevant – it is always there.

The close confines of the Griffin space were a perfect crucible to focus the sweeping nature of the story. Yeah, sure I could see the filmic potential of the text but that’s why I’m so glad it’s not on the Drama Theatre stage – it was a privilege to see these character journeys in close up.

Grant Cartwright as Thomas Murray is wonderful. Understated, focused and riveting to watch, he brought much genuine love to the farmer who can dance. I believed every word. Bjorn Stewart had a touching honesty and I found him particularly convincing, and occasionally dangerous in his older characters. And Nicholas Papademetriou and Vanessa Downing turned in an extraordinary series of delicious and believable cameos. Anyone who can own the stage as a sheep requires special accolade!

The production was well conceptualized and lovingly created, under the direction of Chris Bendall, weaving clever design, soundscape, choreography and lighting into the storytelling to create scale in a scaled down space. It was obvious that this work had lived with him for some time, and the detail with which it was realized was heartwarming to see.

So I add my voice to the string of observers hailing Reg Cribbs as one of the foremost of Australia’s writing talents. Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River flipped many of my notions about Australian Theatre similarly upside down, and swept me along with its sharply observed, richly poetic and deeply moving prose. The excited buzz amongst the audience seemed to signify I was not alone. It is a powerhouse start to the Griffin season and a work you really shouldn’t miss.

Stone Soup and Griffin Independent present
Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River
by Reg Cribb

Director Chris Bendall

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre | 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross NSW
Dates: 13 – 30 January 2016
Tickets: $38 – $30

Most read Sydney reviews

More from this author