Thursday, March 2, 2023



The River that Ran Uphill A Slingsby/Flying Squad Production as told by Edgell Junior.

Directed by Andy Packer and Clara Solly-Slade. Composer Quincy Grant. Designer Slingsby’s Flying Squad and Wendy Todd. Lighting designer Darian Tregenza, Lighting and AV Realizer Mark Oatley  Performers Edgell Junior, Alexis West, Jennifer Stefanidis, Delia Olam, Elleni Karagiannidis & Joshua Campton. The Space. Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Festival March 1 – 6 2023.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


Edgell Junior is a Ni Vanuatu actor who is now a member of the Flying Squad Ensemble of Adelaide’s widely acclaimed Slingsby Theatre Company. He is also the narrator of Slingsby’s Adelaide Festival production of The River That Ran Uphill. This is his personal story, told with the conviction of experience, the illusions of the theatre and the engaging skill of the storyteller. On stage five members of the Wan Solbag Theatre Company, a community theatre company of Port Vila gently kick a soccer ball across the stage. It is an image of casual relaxation and friendly sportsmanship. It is also the peaceful prelude to a cataclysmic event about to strike at the very heart of the string of pacific islands that make up Oceania in the South Pacific.

The sound of the sea swells. The cries of the gulls are strident in the darkening sky and the familiar sound of the approaching cyclone utters its warning sounds of Nature’s impending assault. Edgell has experienced cyclones before but In March 2015 they were not prepared for Cyclone Pam that tore through their islands wreaking death and destruction.  Using shadow puppetry, corrugated iron to give the impression of rooves ripped from the sports arena and blue material to represent the rising waters of the river that seemed to run uphill Edgell and the other performers, supported by excellent sound and lighting effects, play out the drama of the cyclone’s devastation.

With Antonio, his manager of the IT Department who is represented by a Gerry can with a portrait of a man’s face on the can, Edgell sets about doing whatever he can to assist his community. The theatre becomes an evacuation centre for the hundreds of homeless people and in the midst of the chaos is a young girl in a red frangipani dress, separated from her parents. Edgell and Antonio set about to save thee young child who was left sleeping as the storm raged. The River That Ran Uphill is a touching and moving tale of courage, community cooperation and survival. 

Edgell Junior in The River That Ran Uphill
It is a tale told by one who experienced the horror and the fear, but never lost the will to help his community. The River That Ran Uphill is Brechtian in its conceit. It is not sophisticated theatre. It is rough theatre, driven by its humanity. Until the play reaches the moment of the cyclone’s impact, the production tends to meander. It appears to be in need of a dramaturg’s assistance.  Nonetheless this true account of lived experience is played with honesty and clear intent and strikes me as an excellent piece of theatre in education to instruct a young audience about the real impact of climate change. One detects a note of justifiable cynicism as Edgell Junior comments on the Hercules aircraft that carries the ex pats and officials from the danger to the comfort of their distant homes only to return with offerings of support after the storm is over. It is the people of Vanuatu who inspire admiration, as do any who come together to support their community in floods and fires and natural disasters. This is the true message of The River That Ran Uphill as the waters rise and turn their soccer field into a swimming pool or homes are rebuilt after 360 kilomentre winds tear through their homeland and the sea levels rise. This is the reality that is climate change.

Images appear at the back of the stage including a young girl looking out with an innocent gaze. When the next cyclone comes more ferequently than the last will she lose her home, her peace and her hope. Or will she when climate change threatens to submerge her home still face the world with a Vanuatu smile?

Those who would claim that The River That Ran Uphill is didactic and political would be doing this production a disservice. As Brecht said, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate; he doesn’t hear; he doesn’t speak nor participate in the politics of life.” Slingsby Theatre Company’s Flying Squad Ensemble’s production of The River That Ran Uphill is an honest plea for understanding, compassion and cooperation that reaches far beyond the islands of Oceania. It is imaginatively staged storytelling whose lesson needs to be heard and uttered and acted upon. That is its message of hope.

Header photo by Emma Luker

Photos by Andy Rusheed@Eyefood