is in her final year at St Martha’s and she’s promised herself she’ll be a
saint this year but everything is testing her: boys, family, the nuns, a father
she’s never known, other girls at school and growing up a “wog” in Australia.
for Alibrandi, the
novel by Melina Marchetta, was first published in 1992 and turned into a film in 2000 starring Pia Miranda. On the thirtieth anniversary of the original release
of the book, Malthouse theatre brings audiences a beautiful adaptation to the
stage – written by Vidya Rajan and directed by Stephen Nicolazzo.
resents having to follow old Italian traditions to keep her mum, Christina, and
nonna, Katia, happy. The last year of high school is an intense time. She wants
to be studying, not crushing tomatoes or helping her grandmother sort out old
family photographs. She’s looking to the future and hates that her family is constantly
You see, if
Josie wants to really be a saint, she has to overcome the curse on the Alibrandi
family – something nonna loves to bring up every time something goes wrong or
Josie acts like a teenager.
she tries to distance herself from family obligations by focusing on school,
Josie is then distracted from study by John Barton – a rich kid whose family
owns most of the North Shore – and Jacob Coote – the son of a mechanic who can
talk a good game, but has no future aspirations yet.
On a stage
covered in floral carpet - the kind only nonna would have (my own grandmother
had similar), crates and crates and crates of tomatoes are waiting to be
crushed and dispensed into jars to be used in cooking for the year ahead.
this striking backdrop plays out the coming-of-age story of Josie, but also of
Christina and Katia, too. The Alibrandi we’re looking for isn’t just the kid
who is trying to figure out what to do at uni, but all three generations of “cursed”
all three women, Vidya Rajan’s text gives their stories weight and meaning –
the play begins with Katia in a fog of reminiscence, explicating the curse upon
the family. The film version, in comparison, is much for focused on Josie and
how she follows the preceding generations. The stage version focuses a lot more
on Katia, in particular, and Christina.
who is both repelled and attracted to the returning Michael Andretti, is
brought to life in a delicately judged performance by Lucia Mastrantone. Christina
is rarely the centre of attention, in the way Josie and Katia make themselves,
but we can see the world-weariness in the mother that works long days and
finally finds an outlet for fun.
Mastrantone get to do double duty as a nun and Josie’s best friend, allowing
them to lean into more light-hearted performances. Mastrantone’s school girl is
the wild comic relief, whose character has a lovely arc of growth and surprising
Monson plays the role of Ivy, or Poison Ivy as she’s called by the other
students, an entitled rich white girl whose showdown with Josie forms some of
the drama late in the play. She might be the most thinly-drawn character on
stage, but she is there to remind Josie where she sits in the pecking order of
privilege – as a grand-daughter of immigrants, maybe she doesn’t belong at St
Martha’s at all.
brings a warmth to the role of John Barton, Josie’s first crush and later
friend, who is struggling with a suffocating father and a pile of expectations
that should never be put on a teenager.
is the wild boyfriend with the motorcycle and sexual experience, who wants he
and Josie to have fun but knows when to back off. John Marc Desengano brings
such exuberance to the role of Jacob – he’s charming and funny and allows us a
hint at Jacob’s vulnerability at exactly the right moments.
The star of
the show is absolutely, and rightly, Chanella Macri as Josie. She has such
presence on stage and even though she towers over most of the rest of the cast,
there are moments of heartbreak and hopelessness where she draws herself in and
we can see Josie is still a teenage girl, torn between tradition and the future
she’s making for herself.
the joy and pain of adolescence so strikingly that she draws us through the ups
and downs of the year-in-the-life narrative, where kids are pushed to plan the
rest of their lives even when they don’t know what’s going on a day at a time.
It’s a real tour-de-force.
remains an important book about the Southern European immigrant experience – a coming-of-age
story for a teenage girl reckoning with the difficult history of her family –
which is a long way from the Wogs Out of Work narrative (a highly
successful play which toured for years) that dominated the 90s in Australia.
this story on stage now allows us to examine how much has changed. The production
enjoys playing with a nostalgia for the 90s – injecting some “Savage Garden” when
the mood strikes – knowing that this was a period when Italian Australians
could still be on the outer, even when us “skips” loved pizza and pasta.
Woke earlier in the year and K-Box coming up, Malthouse is putting the
immigrant experience front and centre. Australia looks like this and I’m glad
this company is putting these stories on stage to open our eyes to other lives.
Some of the dialogue in Looking for Alibrandi is Italian and the show is not
subtitled. Everyone in the audience understood the emotions of what was going
on, but there were plenty of Italians in the theatre the night I saw the show that
understood everything – the language and the experiences – better than I ever
could. Hearing that laughter of recognition was a real pleasure.
If this is
a book you’ve read or studied, or a film you’ve loved because of Josie or Jacob
Coote, or if you’re new to this story entirely, the Malthouse production of Looking
for Alibrandi is full of the joy and heartbreak of life and I highly recommend
- Keith Gow, Theatre First
Photos: Jeff Busby