Review by Carly Fisher
For many Australians, Looking for Alibrandi is a nostalgic classic. When the film (2000) and even more so, the book that it is based on (1992) came out, stories about xenophobia, otherness, immigrant life, etc were still not prevalent in the mainstream media and, as such, for many, Looking for Alibrandi, was groundbreaking. It was also an authentic and local coming of age story that almost became a cult favourite for Aussie teens, especially Sydney locals for whom this story felt so personal. So, walking into the tomato filled Belvoir Upstairs Theatre this week, it was clear that I wasn’t the only 90s kid excited to see this story revived once more.
Adapted for the stage by Vidya Rajan but still based on the book by Melina Marchetta, whether you are Italian or of another background, so much of this story, and so many of the individual lines within the text, ring so true to so many! That sense of relatability is perhaps one of the scripts greatest assets - this is a very Sydney story and it feels almost like a homecoming that it should be set in Sydney’s Inner West.
Rajan’s play focuses on three generations of Alibrandi women - Nonna (Jennifer Vuletic), Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) and our protagonist, Josie (Chanella Macri). Josie is heading into her final year of high school and with it, the pressures of the HSC. These pressures are significantly heightened for Josie as a scholarship student with a sole focus of gaining acceptance into Sydney University’s Law Department. As with any coming of age story though, Josie’s journey deviates from her well structured, well colour-coordinated plan, with curveballs she never saw coming - family revelations, the return of her estranged father, the loss of a friend, the discovery of boys, and more. Though a well known trope, one quickly overlooks the predictability of a teen coming of age story to instead delve deep into the relationships Josie has with those in her life.
Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction is assured and intricately designed to aid the flow of the piece. And the piece does flow well! Nicholazzo has wisely overlooked the usual tricks of the stage - black outs and set changes - to instead offer a clean and creative production that trusts the audience to go along for the journey. Nicholazzo has treated the fluidity of the piece and the movement of characters between scenes more like choreography than blocking and the show is richer for it. A fun addition is the inclusion of ‘spying Italians’ to take you through the scenes - have to say, loved this choice.
The set, designed by Kate Davis, is beautiful and unexpected. With crates of tomatoes stacked around the stage, the nod to the Italian heritage is present but not overstated - and considering how embedded it is in the script, I think this simple representation is a much classier and more effective approach. Floral carpet adorns the stage in a nod to the style of the time and props are kept simple - only what is needed to bring us back to the 90s and away from a coming of age story that needs mobiles and tech…ahhh, how refreshing.
Where the show slowed down a little was in the repetition of activity and blocking - there are only so many times you can change an actor on stage before it seems superfluous and there was an extraordinary amount of blocking that involved the same movement patterns - up and down off the floor, onto one’s knees for a conversation, etc. This quickly felt laboured and seemed to be a choice simply out of necessity due to vast variations in cast height. Perhaps if some of the crates could have been doubled as seats, the playing space could have widened and offered more opportunities for the actors to have more realistic conversations eye-to-eye? It’s a small thing but for me, there were some beautiful moments lost to watching the poor actors once again have to navigate the floor choreography.
Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting design is integral to the achievements of both Nicholazzo and Davis as it is the heavy focus on lighting that allows for the permanence of the setting, and the fluidity of the direction, to work so well. Though I felt that some of the state changes were too slow and left the actors waiting to walk from light to light to start another scene, by and large, the design was strong.
Unquestionably, some characters are better developed than others. Where Josie is well fleshed out, Nonna’s development really hinges on one heavy and emotional scene late in Act II to compensate for her lack of development in Act I. Despite this, Vuletic’s performance as Nonna is consistent and in that high-stakes scene in Act II, Vuletic’s skill ensures you still feel the heartbreak of the moment and the sting knowing how many migrant women live in Australia having lived through a mirrored experience. Christina Alibrandi sits somewhere in the middle - there is plot development for her character but would I have liked even more, probably. Mastrantone sits so comfortably in this character that she shines throughout. Manstrantone expertly harbours the strength we learn is so embedded in Christina and poignantly poses questions that I am positive rang true for many in the audience - to be a mother, can I not also be a woman?
The doubling of actors into various characters is an inevitable necessity of production. Though clearly Mastrantone is talented enough to pull off multiple and vastly different characters, I personally didn’t like the choice that the mother and best friend should be doubled…it didn’t allow for enough separation between Josie’s home and school life and those two spaces feeling worlds away is vital to the story. Of course, one could argue that the audience’s job is to suspend their disbelief here and, whilst I don’t disagree, I do feel that there could have been a more cohesive choice of which characters to double.
Hannah Monson also doubles as she takes on two of Josie’s school friends, Ivy and John Barton. Whilst again, I didn’t feel that this doubling worked for me, I did feel that Monson gave a lovely performance, particularly as John who we see troubled throughout the play and yet, comfortable, knowing that he has a solution. And whilst that solution is heartbreaking, Monson’s performance guides the audience there throughout so that it doesn’t feel like it comes from left of field. Ivy is one of those characters that seems underdeveloped for me in the writing and I don’t feel allowed Monson to show off her potential in nearly the same way that John did.
Ashley Lyons as Michael gives a solid performance. I feel that the idea of ‘being home reminds you of everything’ could have been a bit more fleshed out in both the script and performance - our first interaction with Michael sees a man who barely seems to remember his Italian and by the end, he, like Christina, jumps bilingually between the languages in each sentence. Michael’s arc is interesting and I feel that Lyons has the ability to push this character development stronger throughout. The chemistry between Lyons and Mastrantone is strong and plays well.
A true stand out of the production is John Marc Desengano as Jacobe Coote who is spritely, strong and confident in his performance. Desengano expertly navigates the complicated Coote who seems tough and very ‘teenage boy’ in his focuses but proves quickly to be concerned, aware and fragile in his own circumstances. I very much look forward to seeing more from Desengano - he is one to watch!
Of course, it is Chanella Macri who, as the lead character, commands your attention. Dry, witty and strong, Macri delivers a great version of Josie that I feel differs from my memories of the movie but importantly so. Macri gives Josie a bit of a 2022 female air to her - she is more in command of her situation and circumstance and, despite being awkward and feeling like an outsider, sits more confidently in her ability to make something of herself. Some of Macri’s choices left me questioning a bit - was all the costume fiddling a nervous trait of Josie’s or, and I felt this to be more likely, a flaw in the costume design? For the show’s duration, there is barely a scene without Macri but her skill allows us to watch through that passing a time, a Josie that truly grows. Macri’s performance is layered and interesting and she certainly proves herself as a performer to watch out for.
For a 2.5 hour performance, the show covers a great deal thematically. Not just of the migrant experience, but also of bullying, xenophobia, the Italian internment camps in Australia and importantly to note as a content warning, of teen suicide and parental expectations. Yes, it’s a coming of age story, but it is much more than that. That said, the run time is a bit too long and healthy edit and chop would have really heightened the piece.
I think I went in absolutely wanting to LOVE this play and whilst I must admit, it fell slightly short of that, it was good to see a childhood classic brought back to life in a new form. I hope lots of high schools attend this production - us 90s kids got our turn of Looking for Alibrandi…time to pass it to the next gen.
Image Credit: Daniel Boud