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Review: The Secret River, jam-packed with power

Nathaniel Dean and Trevor Jamieson relax after an exhausting day on stage. Photo: Deanne Scott

The Secret River

By Kate Grenville

Adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell

Directed by Neil Armfield

Queensland Theatre Company presentation of a Sydney Theatre Company production

Playhouse Theatre

Queensland Performing Arts Centre

South Bank


Season: February 26-March 5. Running time two hours fifty minutes including interval. Bookings: 136 246.

Wow! What an incredible theatrical experience this was. The Secret River is jam-packed with power and emotion that wrings the heart; the acting is superb and Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of the novel is stunning. And this is all brought together with Neil Armfield’s amazing direction.

If you saw the TV mini-series, which was terrific, and wonder about watching a live production, don’t: you will enjoy the stage show even more. It brings out the raw emotions that film never can.

It’s rare to see a genuine standing ovation for a play at the Playhouse, but at the poignant end the audience which had been stunned into pin-drop quiet erupted with cheers and stamping feet as the cast of 21 white and indigenous actors took bow after bow. Even the cast was involved with the ovation – Ningal Lawford-Wolf, who had the exacting roles of Dhirrumbin the narrator and the de-facto wife of settler Thomas Blackwood, wiped a tear from her eye as she left the stage.

It is a long play, two acts of around 75 minutes each, but it is filled with so much action and storytelling that the time just flies by. The atmosphere was kept electric and the tension and fears of the characters filled the auditorium. It was so authentic, with a simple but brilliant set designed by Stephen Curtis that was so evocative I felt I was on the river, watching history happen.

Really there is nothing to fault in the production.

The story is about the Thornhill family; William, a pardoned felon, who with his wife Sal and two young boys, settled on 100 acres of land on the Hawkesbury River in the hope of carving out a living and save enough money for a voyage back to London. They are eventually joined by bondsman Dan Oldfield, an old friend from England, played by Joshua Brennan.

There are a few other pioneers on the river, and also a tribe of Aborigines who live their nomadic lifestyle; sometimes they are there sometimes they are not.

Of course they object to strangers digging up their land.

Both white and black people sit down waiting for the others to move on, but of course no one is actually going anywhere.

It is a fascinating look at Australia’s foundation. The settlers are told the land belongs to the King who in turn has given it to them. The local inhabitants are considered to be savages and so the whole history of the country is shown to be based on misunderstandings and a total lack of communication between two diametrically opposed vocal sounds.

Two worlds’ values are lost in translation.

The play is a sometimes joyful, sometimes loving, and sometimes violent: the characters are brilliantly drawn and acted.

Nathaniel Dean was absolutely convincing as the pardoned criminal and his wife’s many moods and love are so well shown by Georgia Adamson. The magnificently-bearded Ngalamulum, also called Jack, was another beautifully crafted character this time by Trevor Jamieson.

The vicious drunken bigot Smasher Sullivan was made just as memorable by Richard Piper and the more tolerant Thomas Blackwood was the perfect character foil created by Colin Moody.

All the characters minor and major brought the play to a devastating finale with the massacre of the natives. It is a magnificently created scene that will live in my mind for a long, long time. It was master stroke of Armfield’s creative direction.

It is a show that deserves to see “sold out” notices for every performance of its short season

Part of the delicious spread created for the QTC after party by the chefs at the Brisbane Convention Centre. Photo by Deanne Scott

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