Looking for Alibrandi review – a moving stage show of a beloved novel

It’s no easy task to adapt a beloved text, especially when it’s the first new version in over two decades; audiences will doubtlessly come in with preconceived expectations of characters and scenes they’ve known and loved for years. Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, the Malthouse Theatre’s take on Melina Marchetta’s seminal 1992 coming-of-age novel Looking for Alibrandi (also a 2000 cult film) has pushed through countless Covid complications to make it to the main stage. It retains many of the beats of the original, but is best approached as its own beast.

Set in 1990s Sydney, the story follows the final schooling year of scholarship student Josephine Alibrandi (Chanella Macri) as she wrestles with her Italian heritage, and the struggles of her mother, Christina, (Lucia Mastrantone) and Nonna Katia (Jennifer Vuletic). Writer Vidya Rajan centres the exploration of intergenerational trauma, and the disparities of class, in this adaptation. Her balance of humour and empathy, light and shadow, draws out the threads that make this such a timeless story.

Related: Looking For Alibrandi at 30: ‘There’s a white-hot shame about sticking out’

Focusing more on the three Alibrandi women does mean, however, that some other subplots and characters, including Josie’s estranged father Michael Andretti (Ashley Lyons), fall by the wayside slightly. As a result the pacing can be a little choppy and, perhaps due to the rehearsal period being cut short, the cast seems at times to still be finding its groove.

Still, there are excellent performances here. Macri brings a new dimension to Josie – western Sydney accent layered on thick, she is bolshie, brash and very, very funny. Frequently breaking the fourth wall, the actor has the crowd howling with just a slight turn of the head, a subtle facial expression or a killer one-liner. But she commands reverent silence in more serious scenes, holding the audience with grace. Indeed, silence is used to great impact in this production: some of the most emotional moments are when Vuletic is spotlighted stirring a pot, or simply staring into the middle distance.

Making bad boy love interest Jacob Coote a person of colour (played charmingly by Filipino-Australian actor John Marc Desengano) is a particularly inspired choice, bringing more depth to the character’s underdog story, as well as his bond with Josie. Macri and Desengano together are a delight to watch: Josie and Jacob’s first kiss, and a steamy bedroom scene soundtracked by Savage Garden’s I Want You, draw the biggest cheers of the night.

Most of the actors play multiple roles – Mastrantone is a hoot as Josie’s chaotic friend Sera, as is the production’s interpretation of the “Nonna spy ring”, with actors popping up in disguise. This is less effective with the dual casting of Josie’s private school boy crush John Barton and Ivy, both played by Hannah Monson; though Monson performs both roles well, portraying John in this way is distracting, visually recalling Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man.

The production is also let down somewhat by the staging, which doesn’t change throughout. Over a mottled floral carpet, stacked crates filled with tomatoes line the stage in a semicircle, with a kitchen table in the foreground – this effectively bookends the show with the Alibrandi tradition of Tomato Day, with passata being made live on stage. For every other scene, these props are still visible – and while it does highlight the omnipresence of the domestic setting, it doesn’t quite cohere for the entire show. The passata is used to great comic effect, though, during the iconic broken nose scene (if you know, you know).

Related: Tim Tams and panel vans: Looking for Alibrandi, Australia’s best teen movie

The dexterity of Rajan’s writing hits its stride in the show’s second half, dialing down the first act’s constant laughter for heavy revelations. One scene, where all three women argue with one another, bristles with the kind of tension you can only really understand if you have been a daughter in an ethnic family. It’s achingly raw, a visual representation of the myriad ways in which trauma trickles through generations. Another, in which grandmother and granddaughter come to understand one another, is painfully, beautifully rendered. Vuletic’s Katia shines in these scenes, showing the weight of years of secrets and the impossibility of expunging shame. It’s especially moving here to hear the characters speak in Italian, untranslated for the audience.

“I’ll run one day. Run for my life. To be free and think for myself … I’ll run to be emancipated,” Josie says in Marchetta’s original text. That emancipation is at the heart of Looking for Alibrandi – the complexities of learning to be true to yourself while also understanding all it took to get you there. Each version of this classic story has something different to offer, and Rajan’s play probes deeply into the generational triptych at the centre: three women, three lives, one heartbeat.