“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.
“There is violence, despair and a moment of unrealised revelation, and Blair handles it all with a deft understanding”
This story of an Italian American family in nineteen sixties Brooklyn shines a light on the experiences of first and second generation immigrants, and the struggles faced by the women in particular. It is loosely based on writer Meghan Kennedy’s mother’s adolescence and the life of her big Italian Catholic family. Kennedy wants to honour the voices of girls from families like this who, both in the past and currently, have to fight to be heard. Six of the eight actors on stage are female, putting women’s experiences at the centre of the action.
The Muscolino family live in a Brooklyn tenement, and their story is told through a series of almost cinematic scenes that unveil the lives of the family members. The mother, Luda, brilliantly played by Madeleine Worrall, cooks and cares for her husband Nic and three daughters. But her family are not happy, and she is unable to cry. She can’t even talk to God anymore, as her husband has beaten up their daughter Vita, so she talks to an onion instead. Vita, vividly brought to life by Georgia May Foote, does not regret protecting her younger sister Francesca from their father’s rage, which was triggered by her cutting her hair short, and, although she has no wish to be in the convent she’s been sent to, she can appreciate the peace and calm there; a real contrast to her home life. Tina, the eldest, feels guilty that she didn’t stand up to their father and protect her sister. She is caught in a dead end job, denied schooling to help provide for her family, and Mona Goodwin does a lovely job of portraying her low self esteem and doubts. They are all caught in their own narratives, and those narratives are really all about love.
Francesca is in love with her friend Connie, and they are planning to run away to France. They dance to ‘Bee Bop A Lula.’ pretend to smoke cigarettes and look forward to a life where they can be their true selves. Hannah Bristow’s Francesca is feisty, funny, brave and full of the optimism of youth. Laurie Ogden plays Connie with tenderness and gentle determination, as the girls plan their escape.
Connie’s father is Albert, the local butcher and he is in love with Luda, she clearly likes him too, but she is faithful to her husband, even though he is greatly changed from the man she fell in love with. The two men are complete opposites; Stephen Hogan gives Albert a wistful gentleness that beautifully contrasts with Robert Cavanah’s frighteningly violent Nic. Cavanah’s performance has more than a touch of Marlon Brando about it, and the times when we see the man he used to be are unexpectedly touching.
The final character is Celia, played by Gloria Onitiri, a black woman who works with Tina at the factory. She is a happily married woman who loves reading and Onitiri plays her with spirit. The two women become friends, and when Tina asks Celia ‘how does it feel to be loved’ it brought a tear to my eye.
When a dreadful and completely unexpected tragedy strikes the whole area all their lives are turned upside down.
Napoli, Brooklyn is wonderfully directed by Lisa Blair. There are some standout moments, such as the mesmerisingly tender scene when Francesca and Connie gaze into each other’s eyes and mime undressing. There is violence, despair and a moment of unrealised revelation, and Blair handles it all with a deft understanding. The set, designed by Frankie Bradshaw, is atmospheric and gives a great sense of place and time. Johanna Town and Max Pappenhem created the lighting and sound, adding to the sensory impression of the setting, which was occasionally enhanced by the delicious smell of food.
This is a play that has a firm sense of time and place, but deals with themes that are just as relevant today. Beautifully acted and directed, it is definitely one to see.