While there have been plays about ethnic communities in the UK, residents from East Asia – in particular from Vietnam – haven’t had their story told… until now. Written by Tuyen Do and directed by Kristine Landon-Smith, Summer Rolls focuses on an ‘invisible’ demographic – the Anglo-Vietnamese. Set in London in the late ’80s/early ’90’s, the Nguyen family have always been interdependent on each other.
Flashbacks to the 1970s during the latter period of the Vietnam War reveals ‘Mother’ (Linh-Dan Pham) sending Ahn, her son away by boat to the West for safety. Of course, without the point being laboured, we the audience automatically can see the correlation between this and the European refugee crisis in recent years. Fast forward 15 years and we meet Ahn (Michael Phong) on the day of his graduation. With a degree in mathematics, great things are expected of him. Expected to dress up for the occasion, Mai (Anna Nguyen) is Ahn’s 14-year-old sister and a very different person to her older sibling. Unfortunately for Mai, her parents often make comparisons between them.
We also find out that like many Vietnames families in the community, the Nguyens do piecemeal sewing work for ‘private contractor’ Mr Dinh (Dave Lee Jones) – family friend and “Uncle”. As the eldest who remembers the Vietnam of his early childhood, Ahn’s personal ambitions are sublimated into providing for the family any way he can and not having any personal dreams. In contrast, Mai’s Anglicised upbringing sets her apart from the family and community, and has ambitions beyond working as a seamstress or in a restaurant.
One of the common tropes within stories about communities in multicultural societies is the double-edged nature of ‘insularity’. Solidarity against the world at large can be reassuring when a particular demographic looks out for each other. It is, however, Mai’s relationship with David (Keon Martial-Phillip) that brings out the unsaid opinions regarding ‘outsiders’ and in doing so, unearths a number of family secrets that have been verbally suppressed.
As the matriarch of the family who worries about everyone and everything, Linh-Dan Pham is a veritable pillar and the barometer for the Nguyen’s work ethic. In contrast, Kwong Loke’s ‘Father/’Old Man’ – is laid back and often takes Dinh’s side over his wife’s, much to her annoyance.
The relationships between the family ring true – devoid of sentimentality, but full of deeply held feelings. As family, they know what words or actions will hurt the most, and unable to reconcile their divisions once they surface…
The play is bookended by Mai’s photo exhibition about Vietnamese community. In doing something for herself, she paradoxically finds a greater connection to her ‘roots’ and has a greater understanding why the secrets of the past are very much the ghosts of the present.
The duality of the play’s subject matter – both ‘familiar’ and ‘esoteric’ – is a breath of fresh air. It’s also a reminder that to know a person or culture in their entirety is to know what’s unspoken of.
© Michael Davis 2019
Summer Rolls runs at Park Theatre, London until 13th July.