The Shifting Heart: Gripping and Intimate

Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli as Momma and Poppa Bianchi

Operatic in its emotions , searingly intense , this is a gripping intimate production of Richard Benyon’s play that under Kim Hardwick’s direction glows. THE SHIFTING HEART is set in Collingwood in Melbourne at Christmas time 1956, and while it could be regarded as a period piece is still extremely relevant today . It is an analysis of racism and its victims , of how migrants/refugees are viewed as ‘other ‘ .There is the haunting sense of displacement yet also a longing to belong and be accepted.

Hardwicks production is compelling and dynamic and she has a strong , splendid cast .

The play’s narrative follows the Bianchi family, who are first-generation Italian- Australians living in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. They are both accepted and discriminated against equally, which causes stress sometimes internalised within individuals. The action takes place on the Bianchis’ backyard verandah, crowded by Anglo-Aussie neighbours on either side. The dilapidated Bianchi’s house ( as designed by Isabel Hudson ) is richly detailed and in need of renovation and a repaint. There is a functional kitchen and areas upstairs through which some of the characters lean out the window and carry on conversations with people downstairs/outside.There is also a folding bed with a dingy mattress outside on the verandah.

The unseen, unnamed neighbours to the Bianchis’ right are hostile, regularly tossing rotten garbage into the Bianchi’s back yard, and topping their fence with barbed wire.

On their left , however ,are the Pratts a middle-aged couple, constantly fighting between themselves with some vicious internal spats. But they are welcoming and friendly to the Bianchis. Bitterly caustic housewife Leila Pratt ( Di Smith) often slips through a gap in the dilapidated fence to visit them for a chat , a cuppa and a smoke, and even her alcoholic abusive husband Donny ( menacingly played by Laurence Coy) appears to be friendly with them.

One of the major themes of the play is how the Bianchis deal with the various slights they receive. Momma Bianchi ( Dina Panozzo )is volatile and wants seeks to block the spiteful neighbours’ sewage pipes, while Poppa Bianchi (Tony Poli) is more cautious and urges a truce. But Poppa Bianchi explodes over how his wife accepts the way the local Anglo butcher they buy from refers to them as “Momma Macaroni” and “Poppa Spaghetti”. To increase the tension, their darkly handsome mercurial son Gino ( David Soncin) has taken to becoming involved in fights with Anglo boys at the local dance hall since ‘new Australians’ are no longer allowed. Gino is extremely annoyed by the discrimination he faces , despite having grown up in Australia.

The conflict is also exemplified by the relationship between the Bianchi’s heavily pregnant daughter Maria (Ariadne Sgouros) and her Aussie husband Clarry Fowler ( Lucas Linehan ) . Superfically , all seems well : Clarry appears to be accepting and progressive , marrying Maria and hiring her younger brother Gino to work for him .But there are cracks beneath the surface – Clarry apparently spends more time with the Bianchis than his parents and seems reluctant to boost Gino’s career . We also see Clarry’s hot temper. Is Clarry’s hesitation considered thoughtfulness to protect the Bianchis from further racism or rather revealing of Clarry’s own hidden personal prejudices ?

The major shattering turning point of the play creates a lot of the show’s intense dramatic impact so I won’t go further into plot spoilers …..

Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli as Momma and Poppa Bianchi are in splendid form bringing great warmth and compassion to their roles.  David Soncin gives a fine performance as ardent, affable Gino Bianchi, attempting to balance on a tightrope between two worlds and striving to be accepted for himself.

Lucas Linehan as pithy yet loquacious Clarry, gives a stalwart performance , trying to resolve his tumultuous conflicting motivations and instincts . Apple cheeked Ariadne Sgouros gives a secure glowing performance as heavily pregnant Maria.

Di Smith gives a wonderous, beautifully nuanced performance as sardonic , poignant yet astringent Mrs Pratt the concerned neighbour who while needing help herself , helps the Bianchis.  Laurence Coy is splendid doubling as the drunk, abusive and menacing Donny Pratt and the somewhat indifferent, yet threatening nattily dressed Detective Sergeant Lukie .

The note of hope at the end is pierced with sadness. This splendid production makes us think about how things have changed here in Australia since it was written – or have they really just stayed exactly the same?

The Shifting Heart by Richard Benyon as performed by White Box Theatre [Facebook]  runs at the Reginald, Seymour Centre [Facebook] 8-24 March 2018

Poppa Bianchi: Tony Poli
 Momma Bianchi: Dina Panozzo
 Gino Bianchi: David Soncin
 Maria Fowler: Ariadne Sgouros
 Clarry Fowler: Lucas Linehan
 Leila Pratt: Di Smith
 Donny Pratt: Laurence Coy
 Detective-Sergeant Lukie: Laurence Coy
 Director: Kim Hardwick
 Set and Costume Designer: Isabel Hudson
 Lighting Designer: Martin Kinnane
 Sound Designer: Julian Starr