There are many migrant stories in this city with much in common, yet each personal and unique. Describing the journey across the ocean from Italy to Australia, performer and writer Julia Mayer is speaking as her Italian grandmother, her nonna, Nella.

“It was like I was hanging in the middle of time,” she says. In a similar vein, my nonna, Maria Grazia, said she didn’t want to go back to Italy: “… ho chiuso quelle ferite molto tempo fa” (“I closed those wounds a long time ago”).

Photo: Ramsay Taplin

When Mayer asks us to close our eyes for her “magic trick” – transforming into a young version of Nella, travelling to Adelaide – I imagined my nonna in her youth, dancing, laughing, and flirting with young men in her small town of San Giorgio La Molara, and I understood Mayer’s need to tell this story, and to go back in time.

In Studio 166, at the Goodwood Theatre, the décor is simply a wide table surrounded by smaller café tables for the guests. The word “guests” is more appropriate than “audience” in this show. When “Nella” greets us, we get to lay tables with classic red and white checked tablecloths and, naturally, we’re served the ultimate Italian afternoon snack: Santa Vittoria sparkling water, and a packet of Smiths chips – or Doritos, if you prefer.

While “Nella” is telling stories of her early life making fettuccine with her father on a Sunday morning (in the small town of Paisano, near Venice in northern Italy), we watch her revel in her craft as before our eyes she prepares a plate of spaghetti marinara. It is the traditional version, no scallops or other roba. We are told that at one point in her life she became head chef at the Norwood Hotel, and this was the dish that had customers lining up along The Parade.

Delightfully performed, Mayer’s portrait of Nella is exquisite and precise. Her manner of speech is the kind you only hear from Italians who learnt English from Australians, complete with colloquialisms and multi-lingual slang. Her pride in her Rollecta 64 pasta machine is as recognisable as the hospitality, the fun, and the feisty relationship with “Dracula”, her late husband Piero, who brought her to Australia. This performance is not a parody; it is an act of loving homage.

Nella’s brief return season for the 2022 Fringe is well worth the visit – complete with the seductive aromatherapy of frying garlic, simmering tomato, and basilico fresco.

Nella had a short Fringe season at Studio 166, Goodwood Theatre and Studios. The final performances (today) are sold out.

Gianluca Noble is the second recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. He is working with experienced writers Murray Bramwell (theatre) and Jane Llewellyn (visual arts) to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

Read more 2022 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.