BWW Review: SUMMER ROLLS, Park Theatre
Incredible is an overused word, but it's literally incredible to read that Tuyen Do's Summer Rolls is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. On the evidence of this debut, there'll be much more to come from her pen and, one hopes, from the community from which she draws her inspiration.
If anyone can be trusted to bring forth those stories, it's this production's director Kristine Landon-Smith, whose background in Tamasha Theatre boasts a long history of finding the means to get to the heart of the immigrant experience.
Appropriately, visibility becomes a key theme throughout the play, with the framing device showing us photography's power as a purgative of the past allowing us unmediated access to people as they are today - and to their stories of how they got there.
The play follows two very different women. Mother is bitter about the North's victory in 1975, with "Communist" her favoured insult. She clings to the vision of a Vietnam that has long gone (perhaps it was never there) and rails against any culture that does not adhere to that standard.
Mai - her daughter - is a London girl, bright and confident, but stifled by her "Tiger Mom", whose tough love spills into cruel control. There's also something not quite right about the relationship too - something fundamentally different to the one between Mother and son, mathematics graduate Anh. Fortunately Mai can escape into the arms of David, her perfect boyfriend, who happens to be black.
Father spent time in the camps, the experience scarring him and Mother, but he is the one who sleepwalks, the one who saw the sights no person should see. He always has one foot in a past that he cannot face, so terrible was it - he cloaks it in invisibility.
Mr Dinh is the kind of go-getter all cultures produce, one who always lands on his feet but with the Achilles heel of over-reaching. He's not quite as bright as Mother's family, is a Northerner and a social climber - anathema to Mother, who has even more reason to fear and despise him (as we find out).
The writing can get a little soapy at times (almost inescapably so when "family" is the theme) but the acting constantly lifts the production to the levels one might expect at the National Theatre, not necessarily in a 90 seater at Finsbury Park.
Linh-Dan Pham and Anna Nguyen give tours-de-force performances as the mother and daughter. Pham is continually on the edge of losing her cool, but almost never does, continually on the edge of toppling into Dickensian cruelty, but reins herself in, continually on the edge of letting the pain out, but keeps it bottled up, the poison eating her away. It would be so easy to lose control of any of those traits, but Pham walks the tightrope between drama and melodrama and never misses a step.
Nguyen keeps up with Pham, doing some of her best work in the sullen moments when she clears away the dinner dishes or stands, faltering in speech a little, as she shows her photographs to Vietnamese men and women who have not looked each other in the eye for decades, for fear of what they might see. She is a tiny physical presence, but utterly compelling, capturing the trials (and attendant opportunities) of straddling two identities - the lot of the first generation immigrant.
There's fine support from the men too. David Lee-Jones is polite but always slightly looking over the shoulder, appealing to the community's brotherhood when it suits, but, like many ex-Communists, a ferocious capitalist when he wants to be. Lee-Jones is wholly believable in portraying the character arc from success to not success - if not quite failure.
Kwong Loke's Father clings to his Christian faith, but you know from early on that his affability cannot subsume the roiling sea of torments that comes to him in the nights. Michael Phong Le and Keon Martial-Phillip do all they can with the parts of Anh and David, but they're really just there to throw more light on Mother and Mai. (It's not often that you leave a play wanting more, but I was very keen to hear about what happens to David and Mai.)
Summer Rolls is a Vietnamese story, but it's also a story about migration, about families and, perhaps more than anything, about the dangers of shrouding the past in a convenient darkness. Mai's camera exposes the faces of the Vietnamese men and women who sit for her and, as their images are captured in pixels, their stories emerge in words. This play is about that emerging narrative and forms a key element of it.
Photo Danté Kim