Another milestone, another account of lost stories come to light. Summer Rolls is the first Vietnamese play to have been produced in London and a mark of a growing sense of confidence by its two young producers, Tuyen Do, Summer Rolls’ author and Tuyet Huynh, who only set up their production company, VãnThanh Productions a year ago.
Plays from South East Asia continue to be rare despite the sterling work of Yellow Earth, a company it’s hard to realise, set up already twenty one years ago.
The occasional play turns up at the National (The Great Wave, 2018), and at the Royal Court (You For Me, Royal Court, 2016).
But voices and artists from South East Asian still continue to feel themselves under-represented. So Tuyen Do’s full length play writing debut is especially welcome and particularly so since it gives a fresh insight into an event in history many of us of another generation will have mainly seen only from the American side.
The event in question was the Vietnam War, a trigger that proved a catalyst for enormous social and attitudinal changes in both American and British society. But what of those most affected, the Vietnamese and those, like Iraqis and Syrians today, dispossessed and forced into exile in the aftermath of the wars that took place on their soil?
Tuyen Do’s own roots are Vietnamese; this may well to some extent be her own family’s story or an amalgam of those around her. But interestingly, Summer Rolls also springs from new writing programmes fostered by the Royal Court and that other extraordinary product of Southern Asian diaspora, Tamasha Theatre company whose writing programmes have helped so many new playwrights from Britain’s cultural mix find their voices.
Summer Rolls focuses mainly on just one family, the Nguyens whose mother and father fled Vietnam at the end of the war that tore the country in two between the communist North and American supporting South.
In attempting to make a new life for themselves, Tuyen Do concentrates on the conflicts that arise from immigration: integration versus maintenance of old cultural ties, and the secrets from the past that will inevitably leak back into the present.
Very much a generational drama, with great delicacy and some humour – Summer Rolls has been dramaturged by Tamasha co-founder Sudha Bhuchar whose own recent solo show, Evening Conversation eloquently explored immigrant dilemmas – Summer Rolls is a study in the aspiration that motivates so many immigrants, the drive to do better, to work harder, to be better educated just in order to survive. And the `invisibility’ that follows in the transference to a new country.
The centre of the Nguyen family is Mother, played with a terrific, harsh and, bitter force by Linh-Dan Pham; the victim of her drive to succeed her daughter, Mai (a sturdy, delightful portrait from Anna Nguyen on an acting debut), a young woman desperate to lead the life of other teenagers but almost imprisoned in her own home by her mother’s strict, unbending determination.
In between, Kwong Loke’s Father and Michael Phong Le’s son act as counter-balances but equally disappointments in the eyes of the ever combative Mother.
Enter also a neighbour Mr Dinh, at first their `employer’, outsourcing cheap sewing jobs at slave labour costs, and David, a schoolfriend and later boy-friend of Mai.
In Kristine Landon-Smith’s accomplished production, Summer Rolls emerges as not just a saga of one individual family and effects of War on individuals but one that carries a broader, critical political comment on American and western imperialism as BBC news broadcasts on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iraq War punctuate the play’s time frames.
What is freedom, asks the play? What does it look like? `Choice’ and `peace’ comes the answer from those who at one time knew neither but one that lands with not a little irony in the current British political climate.
The ending, however, both tragic and hopeful, does perhaps fall out a little too easily: reconciliations are made by the imminent birth of Mai’s child despite towering rage from Mai’s father when she is initially discovered having a relationship with Afro-Caribbean David.
Still, the development of the family’s secrets, the twists and turns of their life in Epping, the divisions from the past that linger into the present in communities who share the same cultural roots, and the characters’ own journeys are never less than absorbing and revealing to a non-Vietnamese audience who, on press night, represented a remarkably healthy cross section in age and cultural backgrounds.
In the end, Mai’s own drive to determine her true identity and forge links with her roots and community through the use of photography and interviews also proves a useful dramatic tool which might be explored even more extensively and fruitfully on another occasion.
But, all in all, an impressive debut, given real sheen by Landon-Smith, Tamasha’s other co-founder and the talented cast.
A new play by Tuyen Do
Mother: Linh-Dan Pham
Father: Kwong Loke
Mai/Daughter: Anna Nguyen
Anh/Son: Michael Phong Le
Mr Dinh: David Lee-Jones
David: Keon Martial-Phillip
Christopher Nguyen: Young Ahn
Director: Kristine Landon-Smith
Set and Costume Designer: Moi Tran
Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Sound Designer: Nicola Chang
Producers: VãnThanh Productions
Tuyen Do & Tuyet Huynh
First performance of Summer Rolls at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London, June 19, 2019. Runs to July 13, 2019
Review first published on this site, June 25, 2019