Play: Summer Rolls
Theatre: The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic
Playwright: Tuyen Do
Director: Kristen Landon-Smith
Review by Heather Marks
Summer Rolls is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK, written by critically acclaimed actress Tuyen Do. It follows the Nguyen family – Vietnamese refugees who fled the country at the end of the war and resettled in England. As the Nguyen’s try to start their new life, we see them buffeted by prejudice, exploitative employers and lingering trauma from the Vietnam war.
The play opens with Mai, the youngest daughter (played earnestly by Anna Nguyen), squirming at the attempts of her humorously domineering mother (Linh-Dan Pham) to get the family ready for Mai’s peacekeeping brother Anh’s graduation.
It’s not hard to sympathise with Mai’s teenage claustrophobia with ornaments above doorways, bolts of cloth tucked in cubbyholes and her mother’s constant demands, but designer Moi Tran manages to keep a positive lightness in this small, domestic set.
Mai’s mother is one of the most affecting elements in this play. Made tough by the war, her love can feel exacting, but as she laments (for we never learn her name), it is only because she is constantly trying to support everyone – through the war and now a prejudiced England – while no one supports her. It is around the mother that the family orbits, in varying degrees of love and hostility, as we see how the conflict has affected each member of the Nguyens.
The too neat direction of Kristen Landon-Smith and the sometimes didactic dialogue can make the production a touch staid. With the Gulf War playing in the background on the radio, Summer Rolls asks: ‘What does freedom look like?’ and the Nguyens answer in their own way.
Summer Rolls’ UK premiere is a momentous moment in British theatre and presents an earnest, enlightening portrayal of the British Vietnamese experience.