Review: LEAVING VIETNAM, Park Theatre

A Vietnam veteran finally confronts his past in Trump's USA

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MATILDA THE MUSICAL Announces West End Extension; See New Footage From the Show!Jimmy has been making and mending cars for years, overalls on and hands dirty, an industrial job in a post-industrial USA. He's embittered about being left behind and he's angry about something else too. All the years of not talking about it bubbles to the surface when a 'dead man' tracks him down to his workshop and long buried trauma must be faced at last.

Richard Vergette's monologue (he is both writer and performer) gives us a story focused on an ex-Marine but also tells a wider story of how democracies treat veterans of unpopular wars.

It was coincidence I'm sure, but press night came at the end of a day in which many British soldiers who served in the second Iraq war (which started exactly 20 years previously) had spoken in the media of their difficulties in reintegrating into civil society and that sense of emptiness without glory. 'Nam, of course, is the prime example of a war a nation would like to forget, one in which the heroism is washed away by atrocities and defeat.

Vergette gives us an engaging subject. Jimmy ('Dutch' to his fellow Marines) is defined by more than his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more than the stereotype of the MAGA white guy from the Midwest and that's important because it's just as easy to take individuals from non-minority groups and drop them into a box of prejudices as it is to do the same for minorities. We get a man who is not a monster but, with his name on their lips, cynics promote monstrous policies and, as on January 6 in Washington, conduct monstrous actions, something his wife calls out, leading to personal conflict decades on from military conflict.

That said, I wondered why this 70 minutes long piece, a hit at the Edinburgh Festival, warranted a three week run in London. Despite the interest stirred by Ken Burns' epic The Vietnam War, for anyone under 70 the events are before their time. The themes of the play and some of the narrative of Jimmy's life were also covered 44 years ago in Michael Cimino's movie, The Deerhunter, for many an introduction to the updating of shellshock into the more comprehensive PTSD. As was the case in that film, one wondered why the millions of Vietnamese victims of the conflict were given so little space in their own country's story. Others will be reminded of Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump.

For all the craft evident in its construction and delivery, we're left with a familiar American tale with neither its other, Asian, side fully explored nor its relevance to the UK's fracturing social and political environment drawn explicitly. They are the writer's decisions, but it feels like a missed opportunity to explore something more grounded in the perspectives of 21st century UK than in that already explored extensively in 20th century USA.

Leaving Vietnam at Park Theatre until 8 April

Photo Credit: Jane Hobson


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