Review: Summer Rolls
Image: Park Theatre
Cast and creatives
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
Young Anh / Son - Christopher Nguyen
Mai is impulsive, intelligent, independent and growing up fast.
As well as realising from a young age that her family are nursing deep wounds and secrets, she also has to navigate her dual identity as a second generation immigrant.
Having escaped war-torn Vietnam, her family's individual journeys and memories have left scars that Mai was too young to understand.
Embracing their silence, Mai's camera becomes a conduit through which her journey of discovery begins.
Summer Rolls by critically-acclaimed actress Tuyen Do (National Theatre's The Great Wave) is a sweeping family saga that examines the Nguyen family's life in Britain.
This marks a seminal moment as the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the United Kingdom.
Post-show Q & As:
Tue 25 Jun - Trauma in the Vietnamese Refugee Community
Tue 2 Jul - Mothers
Tue 9 Jul - Journeys in British East Asian Theatre
Just in case you skipped the background details above, this production marks not only the premiere of Tuyen Do's Summer Rolls, but it also claims to be the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK.
Since my knowledge of the British Vietnamese community and its dramatic endeavours is non-existent, I can't confirm that claim - though, equally, I have no reason to doubt it either.
So let's take it as read that this is a play of some considerable cultural significance in terms of the community from which it has evolved, and which it portrays, and also therefore in terms of British drama as a whole.
These days, Vietnam might be better known as a popular holiday destination.
But it is also remembered as the theatre of the prolonged and bloody Vietnam War that raged between 1955 and 1975, and which was documented in graphic detail by news cameras at the time, capturing images of particularly horrific scenes of immense human suffering.
That photographic connection is not lost in the story Summer Rolls unveils, though it's used in a different context in documentary terms.
After the end of the bitter conflict, between 1975 and 1995, almost 2 million people left Vietnam by any means available, including many who took to boats, facing danger from brutal weather, pirates and overcrowding.
These refugees - or 'boat people' as they became known - found sanctuary in countries including the UK, though many failed to survive the dangerous passage they embarked on.
At the start of Summer Rolls, we find a mother in Vietnam consigning her infant son to one of the boats, risking his life to find safety in a new life elsewhere.
That is probably the most poignant (and almost underplayed) moment of a play that largely turns out to have all the hallmarks of a family drama, sketching issues that other communities around the UK will no doubt have experienced.
But Summer Rolls also interweaves memories of the Vietnam War that scarred members of the family it focuses on.
The central character here is Linh-Dan Pham's acerbic Mother, the family matriarch whose (largely) unchallenged influence dominates the other members of this British Vietnamese family.
Though she's certainly domineering and cantankerous at times, Linh-Dan Pham's excellently described mother is a woman of prodigious resilience, determination and foresight - the latter virtue being expressed in the stash of cash she has managed to accumulate.
Like any family, conflicts arise between its members.
Linh-Dan Pham (left) and Anna Nguyen - photo by Danté Kim
And things come to a head when daughter Mai finds herself in a relationship with a fellow A level student who is a "black boy", causing a family rift but demonstrating that Mai has clearly inherited some of her mother's formidable resolve.
The play is well-cast with Linh-Dan Pham's powerful performance well-supported by the other members of the ensemble, but there were times when I found the overall pacing of the play a touch pedestrian, and the dialogue occasionally felt bland.
However, Summer Rolls does offer a glimpse into a community that gets little time in the spotlight, and the play neatly shoehorns the familiar territory of family conflict with the haunting, ever-present memories of a brutal war and its tragic consequences.
[Note: although we've included the trailer in the background information above, you'll find a number of other videos on the Park Theatre's web page for the show, including cast and writer interviews documenting the 7 year development of the play.]
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Park Theatre
Our show listing for Summer Rolls
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