VanThanh Productions started in 2018 to enable ethnic minorities to tell their stories through theatre. Summer Rolls is the company’s first performance and it’s quite the start.
The play tells the story of Vietnamese refugees who moved to England in the 1970s to escape the impact of the Vietnam War.
It opens with a mother encouraging her 11-year-old son Anh to flee the country of his birth and escape to Britain where she will join him “even if it takes 1,000 years”.
We then fast forward to Britain in the 1990s where the boy’s grown-up sister, Mai, is presenting photographs she has taken of the Vietnamese community in the UK. Her confident speech is interrupted as a man arrives, leaving her flustered.
The rest of the play explains why.
Summer Rolls, by critically-acclaimed actress Tuyen Do, is an intimate insight into a family’s struggles to come to terms with its past but also two parents facing up to their daughter’s choices that reflect the culture of her new home rather than the place where she was born.
Intimate is definitely the right word for this performance; the small set in the Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio means the audience is up close and personal to the family’s anguish, rows and tensions but also the more tender moments.
At the heart of Summer Rolls is Mai’s realisation that she can better communicate through pictures rather than words and the play’s action-packed story offer snapshots into a family’s story over 15 or so years.
All the cast put in strong performances but Linh-Dan Pham stands out as the mother. We never get to learn her name but that’s apt given she truly is the matriarch of the family and sets the tone of almost constant tension but equally keeps the whole thing together. At times she is scary in her anger at her daughter’s choices, particularly on discovering Mai’s black boyfriend David, but also exudes an intense love for her children.
Anna Nguyen also impresses as Mai. We were taken with how well she portrays the journey from a grumpy almost teenager who refuses to speak English to a professional adult mother to be in 90s Britain. This is Anna’s theatrical debut so we look forward to seeing her progress.
At times the play is a little plot heavy and there are was one scene when we found it tricky to follow what was going on, but this first ever British-Vietnamese play staged in UK theatre is a compelling telling of stories we haven’t often heard but deserve to be told. We congratulate VanThanh Productions and look forward to what other tales they have to tell us.
Summer Rolls runs at Bristol Old Vic until 27 July.