Despite the fact that there are around 30,000 Vietnamese-born residents in the UK (rising to around 55,000 if you include the second-generation diaspora), Tuyen Do’s Summer Rolls is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK.
It bears the hallmarks of a first attempt, with an occasionally creaky script afloat on a narrative choppy with shock reveals. But it also glows with the colour and depth of its characters. Do reveals herself as a sophisticated and empathetic chronicler of people, personality and pain. Though she fumbles with expository overexposure at the level of the line, her scenes are rich, well-rounded and believable.
Anna Nguyen plays Mai, a second-generation daughter of parents who escaped the Vietnam War. Mai struggles with the expectations of her parents and the cultural values she does not necessarily share. As she prepares for her A levels and university (and hides the existence of her black boyfriend), her parents’ and older brother’s traumatic pasts begin to surface, dragging terrible wartime secrets to light.
Set designer Moi Tran, who recently designed the chic and clever set for the Royal Court’s White Pearl, brings a pleasing clarity to the space of the small stage, and Mai’s claustrophobia is easily visualised within the framing bars of bamboo wood.
Though Summer Rolls is replete with twists and compelling characters, the real heart of the story is the fraught relationship between Mai and her mother, superbly played by Linh-Dan Pham. Pham’s portrayal is prickly, resilient and vulnerable; the emotional realism of her interactions with Nguyen’s sparky, conflicted Mai is golden.