Looking for Alibrandi – Belvoir St (NSW)
Written by Vidya Rajan, Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, Based on the text by Melina Marchetta
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
1st Oct – 6th Nov Belvoir St Theatre Tickets: https://belvoir.com.au/productions/looking-for-alibrandi/
Over the course of its 30-year lifespan and iteration from smash-hit book to cult-classic Australian film, Looking for Alibrandi has eluded me. Its popularity, depth, and resonance were known to me in the literary and film world, but somehow it never crossed my path until Vidya Rajan’s stage adaptation of Melina Marchetta’s text premiered at the Belvoir Theatre. Now was the time to indeed find out about the Alibrandis and I am kicking myself for not looking for them sooner.
Looking for Alibrandi took me back to 1990’s Sydney, where our lead Alibrandi, Josephine (Chanella Macri) wrestles with the Italian-Australian diaspora and the socioeconomic challenges of her family. On top of this, we follow the struggles of Mum, Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) and Nonna Katia (Jennifer Vuletic) highlighting the notions of intergenerational trauma. Told through an ever-fragile scale between humour and empathy, Rajan boldly creates her own version of the classic story, which may throw dedicated fans of the film and novel off balance.
With simple staging by Kate Davis, ripe red tomatoes were stacked in a variety of milk crates in a semi-circled arc of the stage. The centralised kitchen table complete with juicer and boiling drum had all the equipment necessary to make passata. Knowing the rules my Grandad and Nanna imprinted on me, it didn’t escape me that Davis and director Stephen Nicolazzowanted to highlight how central the kitchen is to the Italian family lifestyle.
It was a beautiful touch to make traditional passata on the stage, the smells slowly seeped throughout the theatre igniting core memories long locked away. I wanted this to be used more as an atmospheric prop as Waitress did with filling their foyer with the smell of freshly baked pies. Looking for Alibrandi could have done similar and wafted the smell of fresh cooking passata down the stairs of the Belvoir, drawing you into the Alibrandi’s kitchen.
Whilst the abundance of colour was visually pleasing to look at, this essentially made the set too static, forcing the audience to use an immense amount of disbelief as the staging never changed. School rooms, universities and the like became vague and weren’t segregated enough from the lighting design to move beyond the domestic setting established.
As Josie, Samoan-Italian, Chanella Macri was captivating. Macri artfully played the teenager torn between the strict traditions of her family and her desire to be “emancipated” beyond her rigid future. Her discovery of teenage sexuality with love interest Jacobe (John Marc Desengano) in one steamy scene drew hoots from those around me, and her involuntary snort of laughter that shocked even herself had me belly laughing. I felt though that Macri was hindered from the blocking of the production, having to stand up and sit down much too often in a position that felt like a modelled pose of how a teenager would sit.
I left this production longing to have learned Italian from my Grandad and a new film and book added to my Wishlist.
Stealing the show in her dual roles, Luci Mastrantone was a personal favourite. I found her plight as a Mum burdened with the prospect of a family “curse”, as well as her desire to just be a 35-year-old woman extremely engaging and heartfelt. In contrast to this, her over-gesticulating inner-west Sera was a hoot. Her ability to come across as a ditzy, lustful teenager was so well portrayed I had to do a double check to realise it was Mastrantone in the role.
Playing the matriarchal Nonna, Jennifer Vuletic was every bit an Italian Grandmother as I know them. Overbearing, over talkative, and firing off Italian like bullets she held dominion over daughter and granddaughter to never break away from tradition. It was Vuletic’s inner turmoil and ultimate story reveal that saw Vuletic really play to her strengths. I felt so deeply for Nonna Alibrandi that it granted perspective, which is a gift in theatre.
If this adaptation suffered from anything, it was the pacing. At a 2 hour and 20 run time, the first act dragged. In contradiction to this however, I never truly felt the impact and implications of the distant father role of Michael (Ashley Lyons) as well as Hannah Monsen’s John Barton - school friend to Josie with hidden demons of his own. The shifting of the storytelling focus onto the three Alibrandi women left me with a feeling that these strands were unfulfilled.
There is whole lot to love about this latest telling of a much-loved classic. This is a production that leaves you in fits of laughter (be it from the “ASIO Nonnas” or the killer one liners) whilst also gifting you with perspective and serves up an ever-relevant message of intergenerational trauma. I left this production longing to have learned Italian from my Grandad and a new film and book added to my Wishlist.
CREATIVES Vidya Rajan Adaptor Stephen Nicolazzo Director Kate Davis Set & Costume Designer Daniel Nixon Composer & Sound Designer Katie Sfetkidis Lighting Designer Images supplied by Daniel Boud
CAST John Marc Desengano Jacob Coote Ashley Lyons Michael Andretti Chanella Macri Josephine Alibrandi (Josie) Lucia Mastratone Christina & Sara Hannah Monson John Barton & Ivy Jennifer Vuletic Nonna, Sister Benedict & Margaret Throsby