Summer Rolls is commendably, and rather shockingly, the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the United Kingdom. Fundamentally, it is a family drama, exploring the intimacy and distance contained within a single home, and most closely within a mother-daughter relationship.
This family has survived war and displacement, and their past both sculpts and restricts them. However, despite multiple obstacles, Tuyen Do’s play is overwhelmingly optimistic. The family transform their cultural heritage from a hindrance (due to prejudice) to the basis of their economic success. Disputes are overcome, family prevails and the lights go down with a firm sense of moving onwards and integrally upwards.
However, the minimal direct focus upon the family’s experiences within Vietnam, before they moved to England, results in a lack of development concerning the deep-rooted scars through which broken communication and haunting recollections originate, and therefore the positive outlook feels less earnt for the characters and less cathartic for the audience. Do endeavours to weave glimpses of the past into the performance, but this at points feels forced or insincere.
The only monologue of the play (performed by David Lee-Jones), and the most explicit insight into the older generations experiences during the Vietnam War, is arguably the most captivating scene of the play. The audience’s silence feels tauter, and the poetic capability of Do to describe these events could have been more utilised throughout.
Do’s subtlety prospers in other elements of the script, as the characterisation of the Mother (Linh-Dan Pham) is clever, comedic and most importantly strong. She is a multi-layered central female, who is both bitingly guarded and gently affectionate; she is certainly not a generic mother or wife.
The younger cast members, Anna Nguyen, Michael Phong Lee and Keon Martial-Phillip are engaging and present, as their relationships, either familial or romantic, are truthful because they respond intricately to one another. Whereas, it feels that the Father (Kwong Loke) and Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones) are at times not connecting with the other actors, leading to moments that should be tear-jerking instead feeling superficial.
Moi Tran’s set design incorporates the whole stage space effectively, as the framework of a partitioning wall and raised central section creates three distinct areas of the home, allowing the distance and separation dividing this family to be conveyed. However, the direction to facilitate the thrust stage form is at times clumsy and frequently the actors are facing directly backwards. Nicola Chang’s sound design is fluid, unifying and atmospheric, conveying both the mood of Vietnamese culture and the tension of the scenes.
The performance is humorous and at times brutal, but whether you perceive the central themes of forbidden love and family bonds as universal or disappointingly generic will dictate how you respond to the play. It is undeniably pleasing, but when the Vietnamese history is so complex, it fails to create insight into the more specific experiences of Vietnamese people.
Summer Rolls admirably offers a voice to an underrepresented group, and hopefully is the first of many such plays, however this does not alter the fact that overall it is relatively underwhelming.
Summer Rolls played Bristol Old Vic until 27 July. For more information, visit the Bristol Old Vic website.