‘Summer Rolls’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Summer Rolls, Park Theatre, 2019
© Danté Kim Linh-Dan Pham, Anna Nguyen

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Scattergun but compelling story about a young British-Vietnamese woman and her family

When Mai (Anna Nguyen), the young woman at the centre of Tuyen Do’s ‘Summer Rolls’, grows up, she realises she’s better able to express herself through photography than words. In many ways, Do’s debut play likewise reads like a collection of individually captured moments in one huge family album.

We get images from Mai’s parents’ former life in Vietnam, including the scarring memories of war her Father (Kwong Loke) is plagued by in his sleep, and scenes from their new life in the UK, eventually setting up a Vietnamese restaurant in a soon-to-be-hipster area of town. Then there are the interactions between Mai – always vocally described as a disobedient daughter – and the older family members, along with the frequent visits of Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones), an old friend who at one point tries to arrange the future marriage of a teenage Mai to his own son. And finally, there are the endearing rough sketches of Mai’s developing love for David (Keon Martial-Phillip), a young black man her parents viscerally disapprove of based on his race.

This snapshot format doesn’t always play to the story’s advantage. Kristine Landon-Smith’s production has a tendency to feel a bit static and parts of the script sound slightly didactic or predictable. But there are also real moments of tenderness, particularly between Mai and her brother Ahn (Michael Phong Le) and, towards the end of the play, between father and daughter. And as a way of condensing a decades-long story into a short piece of drama it comes across as a realistic and accurate reflection of how memory often works in fragments and flashbacks.

It’s also impossible to ignore the feeling that ‘Summer Rolls’ is about more than this one family and the events they live through. As the first British-Vietnamese play ever staged in a UK theatre, it opens a new window on to a set of experiences where there wasn’t one previously. It does so with a gently, gently approach to raw pain, like a slow-mo peeling away of a very sticky plaster.

By: Rosemary Waugh

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