It is always tricky taking on the challenge of adapting a much-loved modern classic, because you are destined to disappoint someone.
Looking for Alibrandi, a famous book and film, is now a play produced by Belvoir and Malthouse. Director Stephen Nicolazzo’s take on Melina Marchetta’s beloved Australian novel is awitty and timely production that was obviously made with love, but doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations set by the source material.
The play, adapted by Vidya Rajan, is a moving and authentic exploration of three generations of mother-daughter dynamics. Josie (Chanella Macri), her mother, Christina (Lucia Mastrantone), and her nonna (Jennifer Vuletic), all love each other deeply, but tensions caused by Christina’s teen pregnancy, the birth of Josie, and the subsequent secret of Josie’s father, run deep.
Rajan’s script puts family, tradition and culture at the heart of the story. It thoughtfully explores teenage Josie’s struggle to fit in as an Australian-born Italian girl on scholarship at a private catholic school, while also touching on the pangs of teenage love and heartbreak, and the pressure teenagers put on themselves while doing their HSC.
This focus on Italian heritage was also evident in Kate Davis’ set design, which had an interesting concept, but was poorly executed. The Belvoir St upstairs stage was scattered with crates of tomatoes, an ode to the Italian family tradition of ‘tomato day’. The crates felt lazy and the actors felt lost in the gaping Belvoir space. I was hoping for a warm coming-of-age story about mothers and daughters, but the production, and its abstract staging choices had a coldness about it.
The mother-daughter dynamic was performed brilliantly by Macri and Mastrantone. Mastrantone, particularly, was a highlight of the play, playing two roles. Her comic turn as Josie’s friend Sera was countered by her moving portrayal of a young single mum struggling with the pressures of raising a teenage daughter, while having a life of her own.
Chanella Macri is a hilarious Josie. She possesses a dry wit and caustic humour that make you love her. However, certain dramatic beats aren’t as emotionally compelling as they should be. And that’s not just Macri’s fault— Rajan’s script rushes through a key moment rather than letting the audience sit with the emotion of it.
Looking for Alibrandi is a thoughtful depiction of a teenage girl torn between cultural identities, and a moving tale of mothers and daughters. Ultimately, I was disappointed by the director and designer’s use of the Belvoir space. While the production lacked the warmth of the original writing, the funny, loving lead performances of Macri and Mastrantone are a joy to watch, and it is well worth seeing.
This review was originally posted on the ATYP website.