Archive for June 28th, 2019

Review – Summer Rolls – VanThanh Productions at Park Theater

June 28, 2019

In the last few years, the conversation about race and representation in the theater has moved beyond who is performing shows to who is writing them. This means that we’re seeing new shows and new voices, an exciting thing to be sure. And from this we see VanThanh productions emerge, with the stated purpose of enabling minority groups to tell their own stories – and we have the play Summer Rolls at the Park Theater, the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. I’ve worked and lived alongside second generation Vietnamese Americans for most of my life, but I’m unfamiliar with what tack the British setting would give this story, and I was eager to hear from a community so little represented in the UK that they don’t even have a relevant checkbox in national origin questionnaires (because apparently “Chinese” is enough to cover East and Southeast Asia). What were their experiences? What where their concerns?

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen in Summer Rolls at Park Theatre picture by Dante Kim

Mai (Anna Nguyen) is the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees (played by Linh-Dan Pham and Kwong Loke, and pretty consistently referred to as Mother and Father) who came to the UK with their young son Anh (Michael Phong Le) during the 70s (or so it appears from the cues given by newscasts read to start scenes). Anh succeeds at uni but then fails to get work; both the mother and daughter sew piece work for a Mr Dinh to keep the household solvent. It is a depressing picture of hard work unrewarded as, over the course of the show, the feeble earnings the women make are taken away (as the work is sent to China) and Anh goes to work at Mr Dinh’s restaurant.

Through this rather depressing story, a lot of traditional Vietnamese culture comes through: how women are treated; how class relations are seen; and (in a horrifying moment at the end when it’s discovered Mai has a black boyfriend – Keon Martial-Phillip) the rather pungent racism (that to be honest exists throughout East Asia). But the family also has to deal with leftovers from the war – Father’s flashbacks, Mother’s desperate survival instincts – and the special treats that come with being a minority and immigrants in a country where you are tolerated at best. It’s an interesting and well-seasoned story that provides a lot to chew on and is made more flavorful by Mai’s Vietnamese dialogue. We also get to see how assimilation affects Anh and Mai – their experiences trying to become a part of British society is eye opening (and would be just as interesting for so many other nationalities that have settled in the UK).

That said, the ending is abrupt and rather unsatisfying. This is, I think, the problem with having the play focus on Mai – she probably gets her life together and goes off to do her own thing, but we don’t really see her evolving as a character over the course of the play – we just stop after she has a confrontation with them and don’t have any resolution. For that matter, none of the rest of the characters appear to change or have any kind of epiphany, although most of them seem to have more backstory and places to go with their story arc. They’re all interesting and seem fairly rich (in everything but money!). Overall a good debut from playwright Tuyen Do.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 25th, 2019. It continues through July 13th.)