I must admit I have a sweet spot for colourful Italian drama, having thoroughly enjoyed House of Gucci, the musical Nine and anything with Sophia Loren in it. So it was a fait accompli to say yes to reviewing The Italians by Danny Ball at Belvior 25A.

And what a play it was! Unlike traditional theatre, there was no solemn formality of waiting for the play to start; from the moment the audience walked in, they were no longer just the audience, but invited guests witnessing intimate family relations and deep dark secrets.

Come on in! Would you like a sweet? It’s homemade! This gesture of passing round sweets wasn’t just a gimmick, but a lovely touch of authenticity that made you feel welcome.

The scene unfolds with an Italian family socialising over a game of cards; we are introduced to Gaetano (Tony Poli), his wife Giovanna (Deborah Galanos), their daughter Maria (Amy Hack) and their son Sal (Danny Ball) along with his partner Joe (Brandon Scane). The same-sex premise is interesting but not, as you might expect, the primary source of conflict in this story; in the parents’ eyes it’s not their son’s sexuality that is the problem, but the fact that he has chosen to be with someone who is beneath them in social class, having been born to Sicilian parents instead of full-blood Italian. Although they begrudgingly accept Joe into the family for being good natured and sweet, his partner Sal can’t hide his arrogance and disdain for Joe’s humble upbringing. This puts a strain on their relationship which is surviving partly because Joe is driven by loyalty, so much so that he plans to propose to Sal.

But before Joe can pop the question, all hell breaks loose when an estranged relative (Nic English) unexpectedly pops back into his life with a huge ransom demand.

From the beginning I don’t think I’ve heard an audience laugh so long and so hard for an uninterrupted 80-mins straight. Ball supplies more rip-snorting lines than a cocaine addict, as the surreality of each scene becomes more and more absurd. Like commedia dell’arte, this play has that wonderful comedic vibe that we saw in movies such as Life is Beautiful, with ‘cameos’ by the Virgin Mary, Lady Gaga, and the current PM as a caped hero chasing away a Hasonite.

Taking on this farce takes huge bravado by the entire cast, particularly Emma Sullivan who pounces on the stage with the ferociousness of a wild cat. A sacrilegious tiramisu falls victim to her attack for not being ‘Italian enough’, even though Joe made it for Sal to demonstrate his love. Awww!

Philip D’Ambrosio also offered plenty of laughs with the tradie’s version of Shakespeare, and other hysterical roles.

The cast was supported by an appropriately garish set design and pops of colour that drew your eye to the entertaining theatrics. Set and Costume Designer (Grace Deacon) crafted a beautiful vision that helped to illuminate larger-than-life characters with their own sense of personal style, while Lighting Designer (Phoebe Pilcher) superbly used purple and blue tones to accent the drama.

The director (Riley Spadaro) and Choreographer (Amy Hack) made use of a small stage with busy stage action and dialogue being thrown out like bullets, always taking careful aim of what they want the audience to see and hear, and never misfiring. It’s testimony that when a play sometimes sounded like Italian gibberish, the audience still kept laughing, because it was so damn funny.

Although camp humour is hard to sustain unless there is substance behind it, Ball delivers on that substance with nuanced glimpses into difficult family upbringings that demand an outward appearance of respectability and fervent religiousness while ugly truths are swept under the carpet. It’s very relatable to witness those moments when being part of a ‘culture’ feels more like a ‘cult’.

But, on the flipside, there is an irresistible charm to being Italian. Blood is thicker than olive oil! is the refrain in the show’s closing musical scene.

As Ball so aptly put it in the writer’s note: “That’s the point of this play – it’s a chaotic rally for a reconnection to culture. Having said that, the play has no reverence for the past, no nostalgia for a different time. It both champions and condemns a culture which can be both vibrant and melancholic, welcoming and xenophobic, passionate and inert…It’s a manic desire to seek out and redefine what it means to be Italian, and what it might mean in the future.”

The Italians is playing at Belvior 25A until 6 November. Tickets and showtimes can be found at https://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-italians/

Images: Katherine Griffiths

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