Inspired by her mother’s experiences growing up in a large Italian-American family, Meghan Kennedy’s play Napoli, Brooklyn (set in 1960 and performed Off-Broadway in 2017) is in the tradition of Betty Smith’s beloved 1943 coming-of-age novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with its cast of strong women navigating their ways through poverty, dreams and disasters.
Under the thumb of patriarch Nic (Robert Cavanah), sharp-witted middle daughter Vita (a charismatic Georgia May Foote) has been exiled to a convent after sustaining severe injuries defending her younger sister from their father’s wrath. Deadpan eldest sister Tina (Mona Goodwin) discovers the possibility of night school, and 16-year-old Francesca (Hannah Bristow) is joyously in love with her best friend Connie (Laurie Ogden), with whom she schemes to run away to France.
Lisa Blair’s production features a host of warm performances and she does a credible job at bringing the multiple, somewhat unruly plot strands together. She captures the tenderness of Francesca’s first, all consuming love particularly well.
Frankie Bradshaw’s design is initially a streamlined evocation of cramped living conditions, which descends into clutter and chaos following the disaster that brings the first half to a standstill and a Christmas dinner from hell.
The production is anchored by Madeleine Worrall’s careworn mamma Luda, a formidable cook who is so desensitised to a life of hardship and abuse that not even rubbing a cut onion on her eye triggers tears, yet she still retains a twinkle. Her favourite English phrase is “no problem”, because it “makes forgiveness sound very easy”. But comfort food and platitudes have their limits.