Leaving Vietnam at Park Theatre | Review

I am extremely worried about the possibility of Donald Trump being re-elected in November 2024 and what this could mean for the liberal rules-based international order. The mixture of populism, nativism, nationalism and xenophobia he represents has the potential to push the world into a very dark place from which we may find it almost impossible to extricate ourselves from. It was in this context that I was drawn to Leaving Vietnam, a play about a blue-collar car mechanic and ex-Vietnam veteran who finds identifies with Trump. I wanted to get inside his head and try to understand the world from his point of view. Does Leaving Vietnam succeed in taking us into the world of the left behind? Does the play provide a convincing account of what it feels like to be one of the left behind? Does the play work as a dramatic monologue?

Leaving Vietnam. Photo Credit John Gomez.
Leaving Vietnam. Photo Credit John Gomez.

Leaving Vietnam written and performed by Richard Vergette clearly addresses a crucial issue of our time and for that alone it is to be welcomed. However good intentions do not a work of art make. The problem is that this monologue is too monotone, monotonous and meandering. After half an hour I had had enough. So for me, the next forty minutes were a challenge. Leaving Vietnam doesn’t do enough to make the seventy minutes flow, instead, it feels like a lecture. In his program notes Richard Vergette says that he was greatly influenced by Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War well it shows. Too often this monologue felt like a Ted talk. Sheridan Smith is doing a two-hour dramatic monologue as Shirley Valentine. I suggest Richard Vergette go and see her and get some pointers as to how the monologue as a form can be made entertaining, engrossing and engaging. I’m afraid I can’t in all conscience recommend that punters give up a night to make the effort to go and see this show. Whilst the show does identify accurately the grievances that the left behind have (the deindustrialized rust belt, boarded-up neighborhoods, redundancies, broken communities) the monologue is delivered in an unremitting monotone. It failed to hold my attention.

Shirley Valentine is written by Willy Russell and performed by Sheridan Smith. I think Richard Vergette would do better to let someone else act the part of Vietnam Veteran Jimmy Vandenberg the seventy-something focus of the play. Writing and performing is asking a lot of one person. Moreover, I didn’t find his acting as blue-collar worker convincing enough, it felt like he was trying too hard to be working class. He didn’t have the accent or the mannerisms of a blue-collar worker. To me, it felt contrived. There are few things more jarring than folk pretending that they are from the streets. Too often this felt like a researched drama rather than one based on real experience.

The seventy million Trump voters are still out there and they may vote him in for a second time. I can understand why many people on the liberal side of the divide are anxious to find a way of coming to terms with this prospect. I’m afraid the easy and unconvincing deus ex machina offered up by Leaving Vietnam as a solution to Trumpism is very wide of the mark. All too often the left fall into the quagmire of preaching to the converted. The seriousness and urgency of the challenge we face requires a far more searching and insightful, engaging and entertaining, nuanced and profound exploration of Populism than Leaving Vietnam, for all its good intentions, can offer.

2 gold stars

Review by John O’Brien

Jimmy Vandenberg, a decorated Vietnam war veteran, works alone in his garage servicing the classic American cars of his youth while struggling to forget his battle experiences. He can’t move on when his sacrifice is not acknowledged in a nation still shamed by defeat. When Jimmy hears Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’, it speaks to his anger and resentment – and he is hooked. His new-found politics drives a wedge between him and his wife, but a chance visit by the son of a fallen comrade makes him doubt his convictions and leads to a moment of understanding and redemption.

This thought-provoking and timely play shows how those who feel disillusioned and excluded can be seduced into supporting populist politicians. The play’s depiction of the personal trauma of war resonates with the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan and those currently fighting – and dying – in Ukraine.

Andy Jordan Productions in association with Park Theatre
Leaving Vietnam
By Richard Vergette
Directed by Andrew Pearson & Andy Jordan

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