Based on the 1992 novel by Melina Marchetta and adapted for the stage by Vidya Rajan, Looking for Alibrandi follows the trials and tribulations of 17 year old Josephine Alibrandi, a third generation Italian migrant, as she navigates life over the course of her final year of high school.
Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, the play opens with three generations of Alibrandi women and the traditional Italian custom of making passata. This scene, so steeped in culture and tradition, perfectly sets the stage for what is to come. We are given insight into the family dynamic which underpins everything that is to follow. Nonna (Jennifer Vuletic), who cares so deeply for the opinions of others, her daughter Cristina (Lucia Mastrantone), whose life has been shaped by stigma, and granddaughter Josie (Chanella Macri), a young woman trying desperately to feel like she belongs.
Throughout the play these women return, time and time again, to making passata. It is a subtle and clever way to remind us that there is strength in tradition, and it is this deep connection to her culture and the other women in her family that makes Josie the formidable character she is, even if she is not aware of it at first.
When Josie’s father Michael (Ashley Lyons) returns unexpectedly to her life it sets off a series of events that threatens to disrupt all three women’s lives. Secrets are revealed, old wounds are exposed and Josie finds herself one step closer to knowing who she is.
Chanella Macri is perfectly cast as Josie, bringing to the performance passion and teenage angst that was startling relatable. Her relationship with Jacob Coote (John Marc Desengano) was awkward, endearing and very believable. Macri walked the line between comedy and drama with skilful precision which made her a delight to watch.
The dynamic created by Jennifer Vuletic and Lucia Mastrantone as mother and daughter was both loving and heart wrenching. The pain of old wounds, trauma and the ability to forgive are masterfully depicted by these two incredible performers.
Other highlights include the depiction of Nonna’s ‘spy network’ as they follow Josie around, the hilarious antics of Josie’s best friend Sera (also played by Lucia Mastrantone) and Josie’s engaging and heartfelt monologue at the end of the play where she comments, “We were surviving and that’s all any of us can do.”
Hannah Monson delivered an admirable performance as both Josie’s school nemesis Ivy and her crush John Barton, despite the terrible wigs that formed part of her costume. Unfortunately, these wigs, which became like characters in themselves, were very distracting and sometimes added humour where it should not have been. Even with this impediment, Monson’s delivery of racially laden insults to Josie during one particular scene was chilling. Her anger and aggression reminded me of every high school bully I’d encountered in my youth, making the moment Josie punched her in the face very rewarding to watch.
Looking for Alibrandi is a story about family, the generational impact of trauma and about the strength of women. The play ends as it began – with three generations of Alibrandi women coming together in tradition and love but with a deeper understanding of one another and of themselves.
Sitting in that theatre I was taken back to the very first time I heard the story of Josephine Alibrandi. It was high school, I was 17 and it was part of our school curriculum. Suddenly I was that awkward teenager again, and that is what makes great story telling. The ability to transport you to another place and time. To engulf you in a world that is not your own and yet feels so familiar. That is the magic of Looking for Alibrandi. A magic that continues to warm people’s hearts thirty years after Marchetta’s pen first touched the page.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Looking for Alibrandi runs at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre in Sydney until 6th November ’22. For more information and to buy tickets head to the Belvoir website.
Reviewer attended on 5th October 2022. Photos: Daniel Boud