Drama rises to the surface as a Vietnamese family struggle with their past and future in Epping. Summer Rolls is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the United Kingdom and paints a lively culture clash between first and second generation immigrants. The Nguyen family deal with historical tragedy on a personal and global level. First-time playwright Tuyen Do has given her characters a dose of black humour to navigate some choppy waters.
The story is bookmarked by two Iraq Wars but it is the memory of Vietnam that makes father sleepwalk while recounting his re-education camp memories. Pushing her children to study hard and maintain their heritage, mother is grimly focussed on a prosperous future at any cost. Their son Ahn cannot make use of his first class degree in mathematics because of racism and a recession. So they come down hard on younger daughter Mai, determined she won’t become a rotten English child while concealing the unpleasantness in their shared past.
All four members of the family work together to create a convincing unit. Linh-Dan Pham is brutally honest as mother; her harsh observations raise giggles and gasps. More laid back is Kwong Loke as father, caught between religious belief and political anger. The gap between generations is cautiously bridged by Michael Phong Le as Ahn, while Anna Nguyen is hunting for something different as Mai. The children are caught between languages, accents and traditions; these conflicts are well explored in the script and their performances. The tension is gradually stoked by local businessman Mr. Dinh (David Lee-Jones) and Mai’s partner David (Keon Martial-Phillip). Characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, playing off their differences with spats and laughs.
It’s an elaborate set in a small space, the changes in family business clearly marked by the removal of sewing machines and the continuous supply of food and drink. The drama builds to a sharp crescendo but there’s time afterwards for the characters to reflect. Summers Rolls travels a well-defined path; here is where ordinary people with an unfamiliar culture in an unfamiliar place try to figure out their place in the world.