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Three women are on a stage framed by plastic crates full of tomatoes. The youngest woman (Chanella Macri), in the centre of the stage, is wearing a bright red dress and looking down at her mother (Lucia Mastrantone) who is kneeling at her feet holding the hem of the dress. Behind them, an older woman (Jennifer Vuletic) looks on.

Lucia Mastrantone, Chanella Macri and Jennifer Vuletic in Looking for Alibrandi. Image: © Jeff Busby

The three women are arguing over a dress. One of them thinks it’s perfect just the way it is, another wants it to be shorter, while the other is reassuring the wearer that it looks great. There’s a familiarity and a frustration that moves freely between the strong-willed, confident women as they bicker, trading barbs and sly jokes, each one entirely sure theirs is the correct opinion. Stacked high to their left are boxes upon boxes of tomatoes. Just as the conversation is reaching a fever pitch, a man stands up and the mood changes completely—now it’s all business. One of the women’s accents drops away as they take in the director’s suggestions—a change of timing here, a step up stage there. He moves back and the scene begins again, just as compelling and passion-filled as before.

I’m sitting in the corner scribbling in my notebook, while next to me a different man carefully prepares another crate of prop tomatoes. In that moment I realise that even if I had wandered in off the street, with no context, no information about what I was walking in to, I would have known that what’s playing out in front of me is Looking for Alibrandi.

The book, the film—and now this theatrical production—is centred on Josie Alibrandi (Chanella Macri), a third generation Italian Australian. The story spans her final year at a prestigious high school, where culture, class, family, ambition, and the weight of expectations all crash up against one another.

For a certain part of a certain generation, Looking for Alibrandi is just One Of Those Things. A cultural touchstone. It’s a text that carries different kinds of meaning or importance to every individual who’s spent time with it. For me, I studied the book and the film—both written by author Melina Marchetta—at school. In the decades since, snippets have come back to me at strange moments. I picture the long-hidden photograph cherished by one of the characters every time I walk past a post office. From time to time I hear my English teacher’s voice, talking about ‘that amazing line about the sheets’. It will probably continue brushing up against my life forever.

For a certain part of a certain generation, Looking for Alibrandi is a text that carries different kinds of meaning or importance to every individual who’s spent time with it.


Director Stephen Nicolazzo

On a break in rehearsal, director Stephen Nicolazzo tells me how ‘it’s one of those stories that lingers’. When we speak, it’s a week before the show opens to the public. Behind us is a punch bowl ready for a party scene, and a photo album gently placed to one side.

Nicolazzo also read the book at school, though not as part of the curriculum. ‘By choice,’ he says with a laugh. His connection is both to the novel and the film. ‘We owned a copy of it on video. Me and my mother used to love watching it and dancing around to “Tintarella Di Luna” together, it was so relatable for us.’

His desire to bring the story to the stage led to him reaching out to Melina Marchetta directly, whom he knew had turned down many previous requests. ‘I flew up to Sydney and met with her in a little Italian café and we talked a lot about our families.’ He was keen to see a version of the story that moved away from the teen romance of the film, and focused more on the three generations of women—Josie, her mother Christina (Lucia Mastrantone) and Nonna Katia (Jennifer Vuletic). ‘I was really conscious that this book is really important to Melina—she said to me, you know, “this book is my family”—and I really understood that, because the novel and the film had always been such a touchstone for my family growing up, because we’d experienced similar things. I had grown up in situations where shame and the elements of the story that were quite dark were things that I related to. So that was where we started.’


A woman in a black jumper (Lucia Mastrantone) gestures with her hand raised and her mouth open. She is in a daylight-lit room with brick walls, behind a table filled with bottles, coffee tins and other containers.

Lucia Mastrantone in rehearsal. Image: Supplied


While Marchetta agreed with Nicolazzo’s vision and said yes to the adaptation, the project hinged on finding the right writer. So he reached out to Vidya Rajan—a skilled playwright and comedian—to see what her own response was to the work. Nicolazzo explained his plan, but asked her to write up a few scenes to see if she would be a good fit.

Rajan’s connection to Looking for Alibrandi was different to Nicolazzo’s. ‘I’d read it a few years earlier, just in a hostel randomly,’ she tells me, and after that had watched the film. ‘I hadn’t read it growing up here, because I didn’t grow up here.’ In writing her sample she revisited the novel, and pulled out the elements that jumped out most to her. She expanded the life of Josie’s mother—Christina—and looked more closely at the undercurrent of class commentary and family that runs through the book.

Playwright Vidya Rajan

When it was announced she would be writing the script, Rajan, as with all her projects, was very low-key about it. ‘I’d tell people in an offhand way, and then the reaction was so intense that I was like, what’s going on?’ she reflects. ‘I didn’t realise how even in my friends, who I’d never have talked about this book to, it was a thing.’ It was interesting to watch play out. ‘I think even just on those minor interactions, and the depth of reaction, I was like, “Oh, this—this means something to people”.’

This space—distance is not quite the right word—was beneficial in a number of ways. ‘Everybody feels so much ownership on it,’ says Rajan. Being a step away from that ‘was good, artistically but also psychologically, because it would be a lot of pressure.’

Nicolazzo feels that this also allowed Rajan to see the story through a different lens, and bring out elements that might otherwise have been clouded. ‘I think what’s so great about Vidya’s adaptation and the work we’ve done on it is that it has a nostalgic quality, that connects you to the material that everyone has in their cultural consciousness, but it also gives it a very fresh point of view, particularly because Vidya didn’t grow up with this story.’

‘I think what’s so great about Vidya’s adaptation is that it has a nostalgic quality, that connects you to the material that everyone has in their cultural consciousness, but it also gives it a very fresh point of view.’

Having fresh eyes allowed Rajan’s version to be more incisive. ‘We were exploring something; she was exploring something new. And I was learning heaps from her during the process.’

Across the different versions and revisions of the play, scenes naturally came and went, though Rajan’s description of her first draft has made me desperate to read it immediately. ‘It’s basically the side quests, the mum and the grandma, so I’ve expanded the universe of what we’re doing during the year,’ she says with a laugh. ‘So I know the canon even though it’s not happening.’

Marchetta attended the reading of that first draft. ‘She sent me the most amazing letter afterwards,’ Rajan tells me, ‘which whenever I’m sad I like to look at.’ She hesitates when I ask what the letter says—once again reluctant to sing her own praises. ‘It was basically like, I knew that I picked the right writer, and I wish I’d thought of that detail, and just things like that that,’ she recounts. ‘It was like, okay, I’ve got the author’s blessing—whatever happens, she’s happy with it.’

A wide angle shot of a spotlighted stage surrounded by darkness. On the left, a young woman in a school uniform (Chanella Macri) speaks animatedly to an older woman on the other side of the room (Lucia Mastrantone) who is standing in front of a table full of bowls and other containers filled with tomatoes, while a man (Ashley Lyons) watches on between them.

Chanella Macri, Ashley Lyons and Lucia Mastrantone in Looking for Alibrandi. Image: © Jeff Busby


With the successful book already a successful film, of course, one might ask why we need a stage adaption—and why now? Nicolazzo’s answer is immediate. ‘The novel and the film are so different—and the theatricalised version, I think, brings out the operatic nature of the novel.’ He pauses. ‘We’re really extracting the darker elements of the story, so that the impact of all the things that happen to Josie, that are fun or new experiences that a teenager has, are actually framed by the traumas of the women in her life.’

‘I really picked up on a lot of the class stuff that’s in the work,’ Rajan explains, ‘and I think that is resonant with us even today, about the “right to rule” that lot of private school boys have, and the belonging in that world. Look at Parliament—the way that’s projected as the highest achievement of Australian culture.’

It’s also a different way to look at and present the story itself. Rajan has now read Looking for Alibrandi at least ten times. ‘Literally, it’s a monologue if you read the book,’ she explains. So, on the stage ‘there are these transformative sequences where basically the whole space is an extension of Josie’s head, in a way.’

‘I really picked up on a lot of the class stuff that’s in the work…about the “right to rule” that lot of private school boys have.’

The theatrical version, like the film, is set in the late ’90s, and while there are changes to the story, the structure, the focuses, and the characters, everyone involved knew how important this text is, and how adapting it means a delicate balancing act. There are certain things that need to stay in—and there are boundaries that if pushed too far will cause the whole thing to collapse. ‘I realised from those reactions quite early on that it would be like if you went to a rock concert of a band you loved—if they didn’t play their greatest hits, you’d be quite annoyed,’ says Rajan.

It’s an opportunity not to breathe new life into something so beloved—Looking for Alibrandi doesn’t need that—but it is an opportunity to draw out more of what is already there, to look at things in new ways. If you distil the characters and the story that is so familiar down to its essence, what is left? And what more can be said?

For Nicolazzo, it’s a story that has the potential to meet you at different stages of life. ‘As a younger adult I personally related to Josie,’ he says. ‘But now that I’m in my mid-30s, Christina is the person I relate to—and I know that in my future I will relate to Nonna Katia. What I love about it is that they’re all shades of that migrant experience.’

three people in a rehearsal room with timber floors and brick walls, surrounded by a whiteboard and other containers. Hannah Monson is sitting in a plastic chair, wearing a brightly coloured hoodie and smiling at Chanella Macri and Lucia Mastrantone, who are standing facing one another. Chanella is facing the camera and is laughing.

Hannah Monson, Chanella Macri and Lucia Mastrantone at rehearsal. Image: Supplied


As they return to the scene, the conversation between the three Alibrandi women—Macri, Mastrantone and Vuletic—slips in and out of English and Italian seamlessly. In writing this kind of dialogue, Rajan explains how she drew on her own family, ‘my mum and my aunt and the way they speak—not that there’s the same rhythms necessarily in Tamil women.’ She wasn’t sure if it would work, but it did. ‘I thought that was just like a fun, weird, cross-cultural moment of exchange and connection,’ she reflects. ‘I’m not for this reductive multiculturalism…but sometimes there’s a little bit of joy in realising that there are these eccentricities or rhythms in common.’

It is clear at every level of the production how much everyone cares about this story. At the rehearsal, the jokes get laughs from around the room, and the atmosphere is relaxed—everyone is having fun with it. In a gap in which the cast and crew are marking up new directions in their scripts, Nicolazzo asks who has tried out the Instagram game that figures out which Alibrandi character you are. Everyone, it turns out—though only one of the cast members got their own character. ‘It’s a family,’ says Nicolazzo. ‘Everyone’s got this beautiful rapport which makes it warm and makes the show feel really fucking alive.’

Looking For Alibrandi runs at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne until 31 July, and at Belvoir in Sydney from 1 October–6 November.