Theatre | Outback roller coaster | Ken Longworth

 UPS AND DOWNS: Francesca Savige and Grant Cartwright in Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River.
UPS AND DOWNS: Francesca Savige and Grant Cartwright in Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River.

WHEN Newcastle-raised actor Grant Cartwright played the title character in new Australian play Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River in 2016 he won rave reviews.

Tom, as he is known, is virtually on stage for the show’s two-hour running time. He is a fifth generation farmer who lives on a large rural property on an upstream bank of the Darling River. He is going through a difficult time. His marriage has broken up and his wife has gone away. And a severe drought has left the river with only a few centimetres of water on its bed.

When two school friends who moved away when they became adults briefly return to the area, Tom recalls past times. Lucy was his girlfriend and Billy, an indigenous boy, his best mate. Tom decides to follow them down the river to its junction with the Murray at Wentworth, where he also believes his wife to be. And, on his journey, Tom discovers things such as the bones of indigenous people that his ancestors slaughtered when they took over the land.

The first production of Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River only played in Sydney and Lismore. But its success has led the staging company, Stone Soup, to mount, with touring theatre firm Critical Stages, a new season that will appropriately play mainly in regional rural towns across Australia. It can be seen at Cessnock Performing Arts Centre on Tuesday, March 6, at 8pm.

Grant Cartwright, who grew up in Holmesville, moved to Melbourne at age 22 in 2003 when he was accepted into the acting course at Victorian College of the Arts. He has mainly worked in Melbourne and Sydney since then and is pleased that this production will bring him close to his former home.

Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River was written by renowned playwright Reg Cribb, whose other works include Last Cab to Darwin. The play’s initial director, Chris Bendall, returned for the new production, as did most of the actors, with this staging’s cast including Francesca Savige, Nicholas Papademetriou, Bjorn Stewart and Valerie Bader. They play various roles, with Tom and his friends seen at different ages.

Grant notes that the story, which moves backwards and forwards in time, keeps watchers engrossed. “It looks at issues that impact on people’s lives and it takes the audience on a roller coaster ride through the outback,” he said. “But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a lot of lightness that has people laughing.”

Grant Cartwright has won acclaim for his skills since becoming a professional actor. As well as playing stage, television and film roles, he has been a narrator of more than 30 audiobooks.  

Thomas Murray tickets cost $40 to $49. Bookings: 4993 4266.