Reviewed – 24th June 2019
“a seminal play about family, racism and history, brought to life by vivid and genuine performances across the cast”
Summer Rolls is the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK, and Park Theatre is its home. Written by Tuyen Do, the play explores racism, the impact of war, culture and community, through the lens of a single family across several decades. Mai’s parents and older brother escaped war-torn Vietnam at a time when Mai was too young to remember. Brought up in the UK, Mai resists the traditional values of her parents that tell her how should behave, what she should become and who she should marry. But she documents the shadows of her family’s scars and secrets – her father sleepwalking at night for example – through her camera, learning her history in stills. Performed across the Vietnamese and English languages, this is a play about the collision of two cultures.
The set by Moi Tran presents a traditional Vietnamese home, a kitchen station with chopsticks and fish sauce, two sewing machines, a radio that brings the politics of the outside world in. Mai and her black boyfriend seem to exist in contrast to this space, a reminder of the London culture that the family are living within.
The staging sometimes lets down the play, closing off the conversations to most of the audience. From a writing perspective, there is sometimes a clumsiness around delivery of the various revelations that shape the play, too sudden or conversely predictable. As a whole, the story has a fragmented feel to it, and the scenes do not move well between each other, lacking fluency at points. However the strength of individual scenes, and the characters and relationship created within them, still make this a very enjoyable evening.
Mai’s mother is sharp, funny and dedicated to her children. She is played in a standout performance by Linh-Dan Pham. Anna Nguyen and Keon Martial-Phillip are also particularly strong as the young couple, exploring London adolescence, sex and alcohol and art. The relationships between the characters feel consistently genuine, complex and tender.
This is a seminal play about family, racism and history, brought to life by vivid and genuine performances across the cast.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography by Danté Kim
Park Theatre until 13th July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 23rd January 2019
“the cold reading approach precludes us form caring about the characters and is an unfortunate roadblock before we even start on their journey”
The playwright Sarah Ruhl came across the lives of American poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, reading a book of letters between them. She found there was “something deeply compelling about the way these two lives intersected”. The letters, which span three decades from 1947 to 1977, tell the story of their relationship that defies easy definition. It wasn’t quite a friendship, nor a love affair: they seldom met, and both lived independent lives: Bishop was a lesbian and Lowell was with a variety of women. But they put their entire lives into language for the other. This intangible, intense connection forms the basis of Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth” which dramatises the beauty wrought from simple correspondence.
First produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2012 and later in New York, director Ellen McDougall has added an extra dimension by casting a different pair of actors each night and having them perform unprepared. It’s a fascinating idea, one that can potentially give a real edge to the drama, yet it is easy to go over that edge and into the pitfalls that come with this experimental approach.
The actors (on the evening of this review; Phoebe Fox and Nina Bowers) discover the story of the person they are representing as they go along. This can occasionally be awkward but gives an authentic messiness to the performances which reflects the intended ‘life-as-it-is-lived’ intention of the piece. Fox and Bowers quickly fall into time with the rhythm of the text and shed their self-consciousness. However, the cold reading approach precludes us form caring about the characters and is an unfortunate roadblock before we even start on their journey. There is a flicker of redemption towards the end when Fox relates a desperately moving account of Elizabeth Bishop’s lover’s, Lota de Maceda Soares, suicide; but it is all a bit too late.
Surreal moments promise to break up the fairly static narrative; during which, in parlour game fashion, the actors react to stage directions they are given. But these theatrical devices fail to get to the heart of the matter. Bishop’s alcoholism is clumsily touched upon by the appearance of a bottle of rubbing alcohol and Lowell’s chronic depression earmarked by a pillbox of tablets spilled onto the table.
In an interview Ruhl professes to asking herself “why am I so captivated” by the poets’ lives. A rhetorical question with an obvious answer: the letters themselves are an intimately honest documentation of two bruised souls opening up to each other. In McDougall’s hands though, Ruhl might be prompted to ask the same question again.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Gate Theatre until 9th February