Adelaide Festival review: The River that Ran Uphill

In an immersive and inventive performance, Slingsby’s Flying Squad brings a tropical cyclone to the stage, skilfully melding the personal with the political in this astonishing story of survival.

Mar 04, 2023, updated Mar 04, 2023
Edgell Junior immerses audiences in his story in 'The River that Ran Uphill'. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

Edgell Junior immerses audiences in his story in 'The River that Ran Uphill'. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

Cyclone Pam, one the most intense cyclones to ever hit the Pacific, was the category-five storm that ravaged Vanuatu in 2015.  Ni-Vanuatu man Edgell Junior was in Port Vila when it hit.  This production is a testament to his storytelling skills, immersing the audience in his harrowing experience with an incredible first-hand account.

As the audience finds their seats, the stage is already busy. In fact, it appears to be still under construction, with trestles and a blue plastic tarp on the floor and another large tarpaulin as a backdrop. Five people in overalls bustle about, some tidying and folding T-shirts, others kicking a soccer ball into a milk-crate.

It’s all part of the beauty and the cleverness of this production. Everything the audience sees and hears, from the props to the sound and visual effects, is created from objects commonly found in Vanuatu: corrugated iron, water containers, tarps and cardboard.

Edgell’s story begins in the remote islands of Vanuatu. He and his fellow members of Wan Smolbag Theatre troupe are performing on these far-flung islands when they hear an extreme weather alert. No one is immediately concerned. The Ni-Vanuatu community are no strangers to tropical cyclones. But the warnings intensify and the troupe return to Port Vila with just enough time to prepare their homes and gather supplies.

Still not overly concerned and bored with waiting, Edgell ventures outside, heading to the theatre in the hope of sharing some kava with a friend.

Inside, he finds the theatre packed to bursting with families seeking shelter. And he is still there when the cyclone descends in full fury. Hunkering down with his friend as the cyclone wreaks havoc across the town, ripping off rooves and uprooting trees, Edgell peers out into the chaos to see a small girl, against all odds, making her way towards him.

Light and shadow play are among the effects used to evoke village life in The River that Ran Uphill. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

The story is told from Edgell’s firsthand perspective, and his voice is utterly compelling. With warm, cheeky humour and engaging description, he completely immerses us in his tale. The storytelling is enhanced by the incredible work of the cast. The Flying Squad (Edgell Junior, Alexis West, Delia Olam, Jennifer Stefanidis, Josh Campton and Elleni Karagiannidis) move flawlessly between their roles as actors and creators of visual and sound effects.

The effects they produce are spellbinding, especially given the simple nature of the materials. Using light and shadow play, cardboard models, corrugated-iron sheets, whipping tarps and strobe lighting, the players evoke both the warmth of village life and conjure the terrifying sense of being trapped inside a flooding building that threatens to blow away in the 250km/h winds.

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Directors Andy Packer and Clara Solly-Slade have done remarkable work, once again proving Slingsby’s international reputation for powerful, meaningful and inclusive theatre is beyond question.

This production packs a double punch. Not only does it immerse viewers in the frightening chaos of the storm, it peels back the surface of trauma, revealing the strength of community spirit in the aftermath and the shocking double standard in the assistance given to expats and foreign aid workers compared with that offered to the locals. And pulling further back to view their plight from a global perspective, this play illuminates the huge injustice faced by the Ni-Vanuatu people, given their tiny contribution to global greenhouse emissions and the disproportionate impacts they suffer from the climate crisis in the form of increasing frequency and severity of cyclones and rising sea levels.

The River that Ran Uphill offers far more than a visceral story of survival. It brings us a personal account of the climate crisis’s impact, woven together with a story of community resilience. This is powerful storytelling, turning up the volume on the plight of a Pacific community whose voice is too often drowned out.

The River that Ran Uphill is playing at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre until March 6 as part of the 2023 Adelaide Festival.

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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