Daniel Nelson

The first full-length British-Vietnamese play, Summer Rolls, has been a long-time in the making

Summer Rolls

Summer Rolls

Image by Park Theatre


Actor Tuyen Do recalls that a few years after graduating from acting school a friend took her to a Tamasha production (“Foregrounding emerging and established artists from culturally diverse backgrounds”) and she was immediately hooked.

It was the first time I’d seen stories from an immigrant experience and stories of migration on stage,” she says. “It had a real, visceral, emotional impact on me and I connected with these stories more than anything I’d ever seen before.

“It planted the seed in my head of maybe writing something. Then the Unheard Voices Royal Court group was looking for East Asian writers, so I sat down and started writing. It was always from my lived experience – from a British-Vietnamese perspective, which I’d never seen on stage before.”

Seven years later, it’s here, at the Park Theatre. And it’s worth seeing.

It’s less than sensational because during those seven years we have been treated to a rising number of plays about hyphenated British communities, and particularly about the clash of culture between second-generation migrants and their parents.

That’s exactly the fault line that Tuyen Do explores, as daughter Mai walks the tightrope between the expectations of her parents, who survived the Vietnam or American War (depending on who’s doing the naming), and urban British youth culture.

She negotiates the little private life she has managed to prise open out of sight of her Tiger mother (“”If we are not careful she will turn rotten like an English girl”) and her peace-making father, who struggle to make ends meet by piecework sewing. The rules are different for her brother, but even with a maths first at university he finds it impossible to get a job and is forced to work in his Vietnamese neighbour’s restaurant.

Tuyen Do treads carefully through the family minefield, but the inevitable explosion occurs when she is caught at home with her boyfriend. Two ways of life collide with the force of a head-on motorway smash as her parents’ racism magnifies their fears and frustrations (“You are a whore, just like your mother”). Full marks, incidentally, to Tuyen Do for creating an ordinary, young, amusing, sensitive, sympathetic, black man.

There are more twists in the tale, and the script and the cast of seven manage to hold the plot together and create a gripping family saga spread over 15 years.

For the 30,000 or so Vietnam-born people living in Britain the play will offer the rare pleasure of recognition. The writer has said that  I’ve had people come up to me and hug me and say: ‘I’ve never seen my mother on stage before.’”

But this play easily transcends ethnic interest. Its Vietnamese flavour is unique but it’s a meal to be enjoyed by everyone.

* Summer Rolls is at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, N4, until 13 July. Info: 77870 6876/ https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/


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