Freedom and identity are in play in Looking for Alibrandi.
It is the 1990s and 17-year-old Josie Alibrandi (Chanella Macri), of Italian origin, is a clever student in her final year at school, looking to pursue law.
She isn’t enamoured by the tight reign being kept on her by her mother, Christina (Lucia Mastrantone), who fell pregnant with her out of wedlock at the age of 16.
She is even less pleased with the strictures imposed by her mother’s overbearing mother Nonna, who keeps referring to a family curse.
Photos by Jeff Busby and Tamarah Scott
Unexpectedly into Josie’s life steps the father she hasn’t known, Michael Andretti (Ashley Lyons), and just as suddenly she finds herself interning for his legal practice.
She is also interested in first one boy, being John Barton (Hannah Monson), the sensitive son of an MP and then another, strong orator Jacob Coote (John Marc Desengano).
While bringing up Josie has held back her mother’s career, she wants more for her daughter.
The Alibrandis are nothing if not headstrong women and Christine and Nonna regularly clash. In short, it is fiery.
Nonna also holds a dark secret, which has caused her much angst and explains some of her behaviour.
Looking for Alibrandi was the highly regarded debut novel from Melina Marchetta, published 30 years ago.
It was turned into a critically acclaimed film starring Pia Miranda in the year 2000 (it received five AFI awards, including Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Lead and Best Supporting Actresses.
The stage adaptation is the work of writer Vidya Rajan, with direction from Stephen Nicolazzo.
Channella Macri is excellent in the lead. She has an imposing stage presence, perfectly suited to the piece. As good as she is in delivering her lines, it is her facial expressions that add greatly to her depiction of Josie.
Lucia Mastrantone is a hoot as Josie’s best friend and fellow Italian Sarah. She struts about with confidence and a “don’t mess with me” attitude. Hilarious.
But that is not before she has created an entirely different character, being Josie’s mother, Christina. In that guise she shows far more restraint, notwithstanding the fact that her character is not afraid to mix it with Nonna.
Jennifer Vuletic is not backward in coming forward as Nonna, nor is she afraid of pulling girls into line as Sister Louise at Josie’s school, St Martha’s.
I also appreciated the dexterity required to pull off the dual roles of Ivy, the school captain, who locks horns with Josie, and Josie’s thoughtful friend John. Hannah Monson handles the switch back and forth adroitly.
John Marc Desengano is gifted some choice lines as Josie’s hot and heavy love interest, which he appears to take great pleasure in delivering.
Ashley Lyons milks the crossfire and carry on between mother and daughter as Josie’s long absent father.
The set design by Kate Davis (who is also responsible for costumes) makes an immediate and positive impression.
It consists of white plastic crate after white plastic crate full of rich, ripe and red tomatoes (or imitations thereof).
That is not to overlook a large drum to heat the said vegetables (which Christina and Nonna do to make sauce), a trestle table, a few scattered chairs and some kitchen implements.
I recall being impressed by the film when it first opened, but I wasn’t quite as sold on the play.
While I warmed to the drama, humour and pathos, at two hours plus interval, it felt stretched.
A tightened script could have seen the story move faster, which I thought it needed.
Mind you, the opening night audience appeared to revel in the offering.
Presented by Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir, Looking for Alibrandi is on at Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse Theatre until 31st July, 2022.