Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 1 – Nov 6, 2022
Playwright: Vidya Rajan (based on the book by Melina Marchetta)
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Cast: John Marc Desengano, Ashley Lyons, Chanella Macri, Lucia Mastrantone, Hannah Monson, Jennifer Vuletic
Images by Daniel Boud
It is the 1990s, and Josie is about to graduate from high school. We find out that the bright, young woman is determined to become a lawyer, which seems an aspiration not out of the ordinary, for many a modern Australian. Looking closer however, we see that she comes from a legacy of shattered dreams, with her mother and her grandmother, both feeling let down by life’s promises. A lot of Melina Marchett’s 1992 novel Looking for Alibrandi, is concerned with the immigrant experience, bringing particular focus to the post-war Italian diaspora. In this stage adaptation by Vidya Rajan, we see the emotional toll taken by three generations of Alibrandi women, and along with Josie, wonder if she will be the one who breaks the cycle of unfulfilled potential.
Thirty years on, Looking for Alibrandi can feel slightly old-fashioned in its rendering of marginalisation, as a daily reality for those who are considered lesser Australians. Its perspective places emphasis on the minutia of its characters, without sufficiently tackling the systemic factors that influence outcomes, or to put it more bluntly, it neglects to reveal the social structures that aid and abet prevailing inequities that privilege a certain class. The Alibrandi women have a tendency to blame only themselves for their woes, but we understand that things are never completely of their own doing.
Nonetheless, the writing is wonderfully humorous, and as a a work of entertainment, Looking for Alibrandi is certainly satisfying. Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, the production is suffused with heart and soul, using a theme of tradition, to create a theatrical experience memorable for its atmosphere. The fragrance of Italian food stewing in an oversized pot for the entire duration, firmly establishes a sense that a subculture is occupying space, resolute in speaking on its own terms.
Almost half the stage, designed by Kate Davis, is taken up by crates filled with bulbous red tomatoes, against velvety crimson drapes indicating something classic, and desirous of an old-way extravagance. Sumptuous lights by Katie Sfetkidis are brash when necessary, to make effective the many witty punchlines, but also persuasively sentimental, for sections when we delve into the more rapturous aspects of the Alibrandi story. Daniel Nixon’s sound design incorporates curious background noise throughout the piece, occasionally distracting but an interesting commentary perhaps, on our obsession with silence in colonised forms of theatre audienceship.
In the role of Josie is Chanella Macri, who proves herself an accomplished comedian, flawless with her delivery of the many delightful jokes, that make Looking for Alibrandi a thoroughly amusing time. Paired with her ability to embody a consistent sense of truth, not only for her character but also for the deeper meanings inherent in the narrative, the compelling Macri impresses by telling the story with great integrity.
Lucia Mastrantone plays Josie’s mother Christina and schoolmate Sera, with a marvellous flamboyance layered over an intimate affiliation, that the actor clearly feels for the material. Jennifer Vuletic is a strong presence as Nonna and as archetypal nun Sister Bernadette, effortless in conveying authority for both matriarchs. Supporting cast members John Marc Desengano, Ashley Lyons and Hannah Monson are all endearing, and convincing with their contributions, in a show remarkable with its taut proficiencies and irresistible charm.
Josie’s talent and self-belief are the best ingredients for a success story, but they are still only just half the story. No matter how dedicated and hardworking, Josie still has forces working against her, in a world that remains racist and sexist, and Josie’s seeming obliviousness to those factors can only serve to make things even worse. Significant time has past since the original publication of Marchett’s book, making Josie close to 50 years of age today. We can only wonder if she has attained all her wishes, if the grit she demonstrates has taken her far, and if our society has allowed all that promise to flourish.