Bristol Old Vic

Summer Rolls


July 2019



Vietnamese theatre feast

This is the first ever British Vietnamese play staged in the UK and it’s really worth catching at the Bristol Old Vic – the last show is Saturday night.

Written by critically-acclaimed actress Tuyen Do (The Great Wave), it’s all about family, community and cultural displacement.

It is also very funny and moving.

Her writing reminds me of Arthur Miller’s.

There’s always a lot going on beneath the intense surface of close relationships: secrets and lies, love and hate, craftily stitched put together.

After the 1975 capture of Saigon, when the North Vietnamese beat pro-US South Vietnamese, more than 800,000 ‘boat people’, as they were known, survived and died by fleeing war-torn Vietnam in rickety old boats.

Many more drowned in over-crowded boats, in storms, or were captured, raped and killed by pirates.

Arriving in Britain, they were warmly welcomed because they were fleeing hated communism.

Gifts, parties and even elephant rides were laid on for those plucked from the sea.

It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to compare their welcome to the boat refugees of today.

In the play, the tiger mother, (beautifully played by Lin-Dan Pham) is determined her children will be successful.

Her adored, can-do-no-wrong beloved son, Anh (Michael Phong Lee) has a first class degree in maths. But he can’t find a job.

It’s the daughter, Mai (Anna Nguyen) who is the target for her parental pressure.

Mai is impulsive, intelligent, independent and growing up fast in an alien culture.

Her mother repeatedly tells her off for speaking English at home.

I loved Mai’s spoken Vietnamese.

The writer cleverly enables us to understand exactly what was going on.

The father, (Kwong Loke), is frail, disturbed by nightmares and PTSD, post imprisonment in Vietnam.

He is happiest playing cards but when wound up by his wife, can take his frustrations out on his seemingly wayward daughter.

The relationship between brother and sister is beautifully wrought.

The brother snatches the phone off her as she talks to her boyfriend and playfully threatens him, then shares whisky, worries and secrets with his sister.

Enter Mr Dinh, (David Lee Jones), as the money-grabbing entrepreneur who criticises the parents sewing of 50p skirts, until mummy and daddy set up their own successful Vietnamese food business.

Mai is caught red-handed with her boyfriend (Keon Martial-Phillip), whom the mother throws out because he’s black. But straight A-student and photographer, Mai, is having none of it. She leaves and Mai’s camera becomes a conduit through which her journey of discovery begins as the Vietnamese community takes root in the UK.

The past comes back to haunt mother and daughter and if there was a criticism, it would be the denouement of the mother’s dark secret. Only that felt a little forced, otherwise, I thought it a brilliant depiction of second-generation immigrants.

If you love sweeping family sagas, this enlightening drama will leave you pondering how little has changed in the reason why people flee countries and how very much has in the way we welcome them.

Boat people continue to lose their lives.

Melanie Greenwood

  • Summer Rolls is in The Weston Studio and runs for two hours 10 minutes including the  interval. Tickets are from £13 with a £2 Friends discount. To book call the box office on 0117 987 7877.  Recommended for ages 14+ the performance on Friday at 8pm is signed.