Review By Lisa Lanzi
Founded in 2007, Adelaide-based theatre company Slingsby has a stellar national and international reputation for telling astonishing and whimsical stories to audiences of all ages after ten of their original productions have undertaken successful tours. Due to the Covid 19 lapse, the company attracted a co-investment from the Federal Government's RISE Fund and the Government of South Australia’s Arts Recovery Fund to form The Flying Squad: Edgell Junior, Alexis West, Jennifer Stefanidis, Delia Olam, Elleni Karagiannidis & Joshua Campton. This team of five diverse, multi-disciplinary artists, tours South Australia with participatory workshops and original collaborative performances; The River That Ran Uphill stems from their work in tandem with directors Andy Packer and Clara Solly-Slade.
As the audience is seated, the action on stage has already begun. A group of folks in overalls are joyfully playing soccer, working, and chatting on the crowded stage: blue plastic tarps, plastic water containers, fabric, milk crates, rubbish, broom, and more. All of this detritus will become part of the world of the narrative in various ways. The soundscape of waves and birds and giggling plays until the Welcome To Country takes over and the performers pause to listen. Next, the lighting shifts and we are plunged into a true story.
Now living in Adelaide, Edgell Junior is a Ni-Vanuatu man (from Pentecost Island) and this story is his to tell. As an actor with Vanuatu-based NGO Wan Smolbag theatre company in 2015 he lived through the devastation of category 5 tropical Cyclone Pam, regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of his homeland. The story is personal and the delivery by this actor is powerful. His resonant voice, presence, and connection with the audience is mesmerizing. Supported by the other Flying Squad members, all sharing some text plus manipulating myriad props plus sound and light sources, the story unfolds: tales of travel and the cyclone warning, checking on family and friends, discovering a lost child, seeking shelter, and fearing for his own and everyone’s lives. The section about the child is quite chilling but eventually uplifting yet the visual devices used to illustrate the story were confusing. A very beautiful, up lit red dress is made to ‘float’ across the landscape, however the symbol led me to think of the child as a ghost, which turns out to be at odds with the ending of that chapter.
There is a lot going on in this 50 minutes. Possibly too much. As riveting and important as is Edgell Junior’s tale, the chaotic use and manipulation of many large and small props, shadow puppetry, strobe lighting, recorded sound score, performer-created sound, found objects, miniatures, projection, and more, is often overwhelming. All the layers of ‘stuff’ and busyness, however well executed and earnestly creative, is a distraction. The story is mightily poignant but I found I wasn’t connected to it, nor emotionally affected, due to the constant activity of shifting and doing - and I wanted to connect and be moved. I was also puzzled by the use of voice-over in a number of instances. Edgell Junior’s powerful voice would suddenly cease only to be switched to recorded delivery, for no obvious artistic reason.
The underlying and vitally important message in The River That Ran Uphill alludes to climate change and the critical effects rising water levels are inflicting on our world, particularly for island nations like Vanuatu. The politics of foreign aid also get a mention laced with some biting remarks. At the end of the production, two women manipulate a small tarp, as if it is being billowed by wind and where a series of projected statements list (I was told) some sad and terrifying statistics about Cyclone Pam and the climate emergency. For a company who prides themselves on attention to access needs, this was possibly not a wise inclusion. As someone with low vision, I could not adequately read that text and any number of folk who live with visual, intellectual, or learning disabilities would have experienced the same dilemma.
One moving anecdote from Edgell Junior tells of a cherished space by the coast where he and his friends and cousins played soccer as children. Due to rising seas, that stretch of land is now permanently under water. The River That Ran Uphill is an important story produced by a brilliant team of creatives that needs some refining to be considered a worthy mainstage Festival inclusion.