Posts Tagged ‘park theater’

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.)

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Review – Some Girls – Buckland Theater Company at Park Theater

July 24, 2016

I’ve been watching Neil LaBute plays since 2008, when I first saw one in the form of Fat Pig at the Comedy Theater. His use of naturalistic language and creation of characters that were fully believable – and extremely American – was a joy for me to see. People I recognized on stage, dealing with situations that seemed to be familiar and realistic – now that’s what I like! I’ve had the opportunity now to watch his style evolving, but I didn’t hesitate to take up TheatreBloggers.co.uk on an offer for a visit to see his 2005 show Some Girls and a Q&A with the director and cast afterwards.

The plot seems very thin on the surface: a man (never named, called “Guy” in the script, played by Charlie Dorfman) flies to several cities he lived in in the past to have visits with his exes, for the approximate purpose of setting things right with them. On the way, we meet Sam (Elly Condron), Tyler (Roxanne Pallett), Lindsay (Carolyn Backhouse), and Bobbi (Barley Stenson). The unifying theme in their relationships is that this guy walked out on them and never spoke to them again; for some reason, all of them have decided to take him up on his offer to meet up and hash things out years later.

Elly Condron (Sam) in Buckland Theatre Company's Some Girl(s) at Park Theatre. Credit Claire Bilyard

Elly Condron (Sam) in Buckland Theatre Company’s Some Girl(s) at Park Theatre. Credit Claire Bilyard

While we’re meant to buy into this situation, I, for one, never felt like it added up. The guy seems to want something, yet be incapable of articulating it; the women only get about 20 minutes each in which to develop their characters and aren’t able to get very deep. Still, the actresses use their skill with movement to flesh out their characters and made me believe there is more to them than we get to see; but the same isn’t true of the guy. He is stiff and says little and tends to have a bit of a wheedling, weasley smile on his face; but I couldn’t believe there was much else underneath it. Even if he is ultimately only driven by his ego and his desire to do things for himself, that, as a character trait, is something I am able to believe in; but it’s not in Dorfman’s interpretation of the character and there wasn’t nearly enough else that he did or said to make him be anything more substantial. I ended feeling like everything was a bit of a set up for a sitcom style joke, and that’s really not what I go to the theater for. I want Ibsenesque characters that I walk out of the theater talking about as if I’ve known them for years; I imagine LaBute had the opportunity to create a piece using David Schwimmer as a character and built the role around him, without worrying about three dimensionality. In short, the script needs more to it, and because of this I would not consisider Some Girls a particularly good night out.

However: I’d like to take a brief break to discuss the question of “misogyny in Neil LaBute’s plays.” It keeps coming up that he’s a misogynist: women in his plays are judged by their looks and frequently ill treated by the men in their lives. Is LaBute misogynistic? Are his plays misogynistic? I have to say, as a second wave feminist and hardcore theater goer, this is an extremely specious argument. Essentially, it’s saying that a playwright who writes about Jack the Ripper must be a murderer himself. LaBute creates characters, characters which are wholly based in 21st century (and in America). We live in a world in which, it’s true, women are judged on their appearances. Even if you are a child, you’re treated better if you’re pretty than if you’re not. LaBute does more for us by showing us the reality of the world we live in – in which pretty women are treated better by society than ugly ones, in which “fat” is treated as a moral shortcoming, in which men are not always nice to women and women can be angry and violent – than he would if he wrote plays in which he tried to pretend that things aren’t as they are. 100 years later, Shaw’s plays show a world in which getting divorced was a one way ticket to social exclusion (The Philanderer), but his plays would have been nonsensical if he tried to pretend this wasn’t a reality. We live in a world in which women aren’t treated the same as men. Holding up a mirror to that world is not misogynistic: it’s good writing, even if we don’t like what we see reflected at us.

(This review is for a performance that took place the night of July 21, 2016. It continues through August 6th.)

Review – Daytona – Theater Royal Haymarket

July 14, 2014

New plays set in America aren’t as common in London as I’d hope (Mr. Burns aside), so I was quite intrigued when the opportunity came up to see Daytona, which debuted last summer at the Park Theater. I’d guess that it’s season at the Theater Royal Haymarket is more about replacing a failing show than about moving something with a huge groundswell of support into an appropriate sized venue: as a three-hander, it’s a bit intimate in this barn; its replacement, Great Britain, will be much more appropriate in the space.

But Daytona is still a compelling, enjoyable piece of theater that well deserves a chance for a wider audience. It features three characters late in their lives – husband and wife, Elli (Maureen Lipman) and Joe (Harry Shearer), and Joe’s brother, Billy (Oliver Cotton) – all with vibrant life stories and in no way suddenly made irrelevant since they’re past retirement. The play start with Joe and Elli at their apartment in New York, and they seem almost dismissable in their cute bickery old couple-ness. But Billy’s arrival sets off chain reactions that show that, even in their sunset years, all of these people have decisions to make about what it means to live right and well and we, as audience members, have no idea what any of the three of them are going to decide.

Unfortunately, rather a lot of the play is devoted to Billy’s long ramble about his recent trip to Daytona, which spends a lot of time not getting to the point and simultaneously manages to avoid Joe’s big question: why did Billy walk out of his brother (and sister in law’s) life thirty years ago and just completely disappear? We are, fortunately, given the opportunity to explore this ellipsis in more detail in the second act: but, although Cotton (as writer) comes up with an answer, I found it not entirely satisfying as why a person would not just walk away from his only family but completely reject his culture. Furthermore, I really just couldn’t believe that a traumatized Eastern European could have assimilated so seamlessly into American culture as Billy is supposed to have done. Sure, his accent is perfect Midwestern – but, despite his slip-up in Daytona, he doesn’t feel in any way like a man with a complicated psychology and cultural depth.

Elli and Joe, well, I can by them as old people who love ballroom dancing and who have been together for decades, but the feeling of having struggled as hard as they must have during the war – from what I’ve heard, there are scars, some of which manifest themselves in some pretty strange ways (i.e. avoidance tactics in conversation, a certain hard-headedness) and Elli and Joe really seem just a bit too soft to sell me on their histories. Even Elli’s little “slip” into slight European-ness in her second act accent wasn’t enough – frankly, I think she would have just started talking in her native language instead of slipping Yiddish phrases in – and neither of the other guys, well, they weren’t believable as people who hadn’t been in America their whole lives. They didn’t feel like immigrants.

That said, all three of them were convincing as people with a fifty year history, and this is what I loved about the play, as well as the pleasure of watching the story unfold because I truly never knew what was going to happen next. Sure, there were gaps, but with pros like these on stage I was willing to go for the ride. The interval came and I was eager to get back in my seat and see what happened next – an experience I get about four times a year. So even though Daytona may be too intimate for the Haymarket, it’s still an enjoyable evening of theater that well repays its investment in time. I see it’s touring, and that makes me glad: more people deserve a chance to let this well-polished cast take them on a trip of imagination.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on July 7th, 2014. It continues through August 23rd.)