Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River, by Reg Cribb | Directed by Chris Bendall

Stone Soup Theatre & Griffin Theatre Company (www.griffintheatre.com.au) | SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 30 January

Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River is Reg Cribb’s latest play, and like his earlier work, Last Cab to Darwin, it is an examination of the European settler’s role in the continuous history of this Great Southern Land.

Layered with an array of important themes and focusing on Tom Murray (Grant Cartwright), a fifth-generation white farmer, it examines the importance of man’s relationship with place — in this case, the Darling River.

For the first people, the river was central to their existence for over 30,000 years, until contact with white settlers in the 1820s impacted drastically and the Indigenous people lost access to waterways, land and sacred sites.

Cribb’s play— epic in scope — focuses on Tom Murray’s downstream journey to find his estranged wife Lucy (Francesca Savige) and to make an attempt to reconcile past wrongs against his Aboriginal childhood friend Billy (Bjorn Stewart).

Along the way, Murray encounters an array of idiosyncratic and distinctive characters, played with great energy and skill by Nicholas Papademetriou and Vanessa Downing.

Like the river itself, this is a meandering saga which winds its way through five generations of family that have attempted to settle on its banks. Murray’s disquiet with his history makes for riveting drama, as Grant Cartwright powerfully embodies a character tortured by memory and history — someone who can never be at peace with himself in the present or past.

There are times when the writing and some performances border towards the melodramatic, as the action looms larger than life, in one of the most intimate theatrical spaces in Sydney. But Dann Barber’s creative set design successfully solves the problems of limited space, whilst his detailed costume design adds Outback authenticity, and, of course, Cribb’s dialogue is always powerful enough to evoke the expansive magnificence of rural Australia.

Chris Bendall’s astute direction carefully contains and compresses this epic and as the water subsides, the uncovered bones of the Aboriginal people and their past is exposed on stage for all to see.

This is a serious-minded and ambitious saga, intelligently and strikingly crafted, and confirms Cribb as a playwright of significant note.

Thumbs Up!