Tuyen Do’s play chronicles the lives of a Vietnamese family who settle in Britain after the Vietnam war – the mother (Linh-Dan Pham) works as a seamstress (and later chef-proprieter), her son Anh (Michael Phong Le) has just graduated with a first class degree in mathematics, and daughter Mai (Anna Nguyen) is going through a rebellious phase, smoking joints with her secret boyfriend (a very likeable Keon Martial-Phillip) when mum and dad aren’t in the house. The father (Kwong Loke) is a war veteran whose memories haunt him in his sleep.
Mai finds communicating through language difficult – while the other characters go through a Vietnamese-English theatre-translation filter, Mai speaks Vietnamese on stage, or English when she refuses to comply with her parents’ no-English rule. She’s a budding photographer, and this alternative language is easier for her – she feels closer to her parents when looking at a family album than when she’s in the room with them, with all their unspoken secrets and overbearing expectations. The photos bring out their complexities, their humanity, their fears and hopes.
The relationship between first and second generation immigrants is one of Do’s chief concerns. She draws a detailed picture of the Vietnamese diasporia in Epping in the 1970s and 80s. A small community, relying on each other for work – and the exploitation that easily occurs in that situation. Parents wanting bigger and better things for their children. The friction of intergenerational cultural values with regards to education, gender, marriage. The promise of England and the reality of its disappointing greyness. Work, always work.
A strength of Do’s writing is the way it refuses to let anyone off the hook. In the tradition of well-made playwriting, the characters’ flaws are revealed at the same time as we sympathise with each’s perspective. The mother is intensely protective of Mai, unafraid to stand against her husband and their manipulative friend/employer Mr Dhing when they attempt to marry her off; but she only shows her daughter the toughest and most overbearing love, and is overtly racist towards Mai’s black boyfriend (anti-blackness is prevalent in East and South-East Asian communities, though seldom properly discussed and tackled). Linh-Dan Pham is excellent in the role – with perfect posture and a fixed expression of disapproval, she allows the character’s complexities to slowly unfurl over the course of the play.
The evening is a little long, with over-expository signposting, a couple of predictable plot beats and some baggy scenes which feel like they’re re-treading ground already covered. Kristin Landon Smith’s production, too, feels a little sedentary, lacking the requisite pace for the domestic drama to properly spark. But it’s quite brilliant to see the work of a nearly all-Asian creative and technical team, with typically refined and sensitive work from designers Moi Tran and Jessica Hung Han Yun. The first Vietnamese-British play to be staged in the UK, this is clearly a labour of love, a very personal tribute to a generation who risked, struggled and survived; by the end, its finely drawn characters feel a bit like family.
Summer Rolls ran at Bristol Old Vic from 24-27 July, following a run at the Park Theatre, London. More info here.