Vietgone (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

This exhilarating hip-hop musical from Queensland Theatre is a huge crowd-pleaser, ending the year of productions on a high note. Set immediately post-Vietnam predominantly in a refugee camp in Arkansas, U.S.A., with flashbacks to Saigon, Vietgone is written by Qui Nguyen (who’s since gone on to write for Disney animation projects since penning this in 2015).

Images: Brett Boardman

The play starts with Hieu Luong as a teen boy playing the ‘Playwright’, who introduces the audience to what they’re about to see. He explains that the Vietnamese characters will speak in American vernacular while American characters will sprout nonsense English. This is a nice turn-around from the usual, because it’s all from the Vietnamese characters’ point of view. It’s borne out hilariously in a couple of scenes when the multiple role-playing Patrick Jhanur has lines such as, ‘Splish splash, I was taking a bath’, which an interpreter has to make sense of.

The Playwright says that what’s to follow may or may not be partly autobiographical, but we end up in no doubt that it’s his parents who are the main characters – Quang, played by Will Tran, and Kristie Nguy as Tong. They both flee the horrors of Saigon, but Quang is heartbroken that he’s had to leave his wife and two young kids behind, while the headstrong Tong, who’s left behind a fiancée she didn’t love, has dragged her unwilling mother along (the scene-stealing Ngoc Phan, also the play’s co-director along with Daniel Evans). Along for the ride with Quang is his friend, Nhan (Aljn Abella, another brilliant scene-stealer).

Vietgone strikes a delicate balance between being a high-spirited comedic tale and a serious and poignant view at the toll war and the state of refugee-hood takes on people. It’s never been more relevant than right now with what’s going on in the world. These people are humans who would much rather have stayed in their homeland and lived in peace, but they’ve had to make the toughest of decisions in the name of survival.

Scenes in the U.S. feature Tong and Quang starting to be attracted to each other, but trying not to get emotionally attached seeing as it’s Quang’s goal to get back home to see his family (although having served in the South Vietnamese military, it will be very dangerous for him to return). Plus, Tong is determined not to get involved with anyone and lose her heart. She wants to have fun (and lots of sex) without any emotional ties.

In the meantime, there are plenty of hip-hop numbers and big musical set pieces where various characters make use of the rotating raised-walkway set dominated by a huge billboard (from designer, Christina Smith). On it are projected images of American signage, announcements of what timeframe we’ve jumped to, and video and photos of real scenes from the Vietnam War. At one point we even get some shadow puppet-style choreography. It’s a wild ride and certainly a refreshing genre-bending theatre experience.

Will Tran shows an admirable range, from his leather jacket-wearing motorbike-riding portrayal of young Quang right through to a moving transition to the 60-something version of Quang. His powerful dialogue with his son ends the show with a markedly different tone from what’s come before. Kristie Nguy matches him as the spirited young Vietnamese woman who goes against stereotypes of how Asian women are often characterised. And kudos to Patrick Jhanur for his hilarious performances in seven different roles. Quite a few of the actors are making their Queensland Theatre debut with this production. Let’s hope we see a lot more of them.

Vietgone is at the Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane until 18 November 2023

Vicki Englund

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