The set for Looking for Alibrandi is piled high with plastic crates of tomatoes to make passata. Passata making is a rich, centuries-old Italian tradition that gathers the entire family or village together to bottle tomato puree for the following year. In this play, set in Sydney’s Inner West in the 1990s, the tradition is still alive, and for the Alibrandi family it symbolises the depth and importance of their Italian culture.
Looking for Alibrandi is an adaptation of a popular young adult coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl, Josie trying to forge her own identity whilst straddling the cultures of her poor, traditional Italian family and the privileged, predominantly Anglo culture of her private school.
The novel has been a popular high school text for many years (at one point, said to be the most stolen text from libraries), and it was 30 years ago that a much-loved film was made.
Stephen Nicolazzo directs this charming production, which is rich with themes of racism, identity, acceptance, family expectations, the pressure to achieve, and the tension between holding onto family culture and embracing a contemporary life. It also references the history of Italian migrants in Australia, including the internment of Italian men during WWII in Australia.
The power of this production comes from the central concerns of the Alibrandi women – their struggles, the difficulty of integrating their traditional and contemporary values, and the intensity of their connection to each other. These spirited, vibrant scenes are beautifully performed by Chanella Macri as Josie, the 17-year-old firebrand scholarship girl, Lucia Mastrantone as Josie’s young, single mother Christina and Jennifer Vuletic as the mostly bitter and scolding Nonna. Their scenes are a pure joy. Mastrantone and Vuletic both give formidable performances. They are funny, furious and extremely moving in how they deal with the fallout from the difficult cultural circumstances of their respective generations.
The casting of Chanella Macri as Josie is clever. She physically towers over the rest of the cast, drawing attention to her feelings of otherness and alienation. At one point, she says how she just doesn’t fit. Macri has a striking stage presence and a knack for deadpan humour that suits the tough veneer that Josie has had to develop as she struggles with her emerging identity and her traditional culture. While her style doesn’t always work as well in more vulnerable moments, her charisma is the driving force of the show.
It’s quite a long show, running 2 hours and 20 minutes including interval, and would have benefitted from a judicious edit. The energy that drives the central story of the family isn’t consistent across the whole production. Several issues brought up in the book seem quite challenging to realise and resolve in the framework of a play and some of the scenes from the secondary plotlines fall a little flat. For instance, I didn’t feel the intimacy between Josie and her love interests, John Barton (Hannah Monson) and Jacob Coote (John Marc Desengano). On the other hand, the high comic scenes with Lucia Mastrantone playing Sera, the outrageous, boy-crazy, rich builder’s daughter, absolutely lifted the energy level.
Overall, it is a warm and uplifting Australian story celebrating the richness and difficulties of different cultural identities that will appeal to a range of age groups. It provides a wonderful opportunity for audiences to revisit a much-loved novel and film and the issues they raised in a modern context and have a few laughs along the way.
Looking for Alibrandi
by Vidya Rajan | based on the book by Melina Marchetta
Director Stephen Nicolazzo
Venue: Upstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 1 Oct – 6 Nov 2022
Tickets: $91 – $50
Looking for Alibrandi is co-produced with Malthouse Theatre