Leaving Vietnam at Park Theatre
A one-man show relaying the life of decorated Vietnam War veteran Jimmy, Leaving Vietnam is the brainchild of writer and actor Richard Vergette. He begins at the end and transports the audience back through time, weaving the way through the subject’s life, and culminating in the present day. The narrative touches on themes of racism, the injustice of war, and the PTSD experienced by those who have fought for their country. Directed by Andy Jordan and Andrew Pearson, this is an interesting take on the aftermath of such an infamous conflict, however, it misses the mark in many ways.
Of the many questionable decisions made, the most glaring is the casting of Vergette as a US veteran. It is not unusual for British actors to adopt an American accent, but in this instance it often slips, making it hard to fully invest and believe in the depiction. As is often the case with a one-man show, there are also passages where the actor adopts other personas, and a lot of the time the inflection of a supposedly Spanish character falls into something closer to West Country.
This leads to another issue: in a world where racism and political correctness are rife, the derogatory terms used for Vietnamese and Mexicans are certainly jarring, if in keeping with the era portrayed. One does wonder whether the heavy-handedness is entirely necessary, even if it is pertinent to the story. It could be argued that when Jimmy puts on the “Make America Great Again” hat, it explains this language.
That being said, the story arc itself is quite beautiful. The folly of youth, as Jimmy goes to war, juxtaposed with his meeting Alvarado, and how this new influence brings out his humanity, is something that helps bring the central character out of the two-dimensional. Vergette does a good job of making the veteran loveable by showing his vulnerability at the end, when he finally goes to visit the war memorial. The walls that he has spent so long putting up finally come crashing down, and the audience is left with some relief that this antagonist has finally become human.
The cramming of social issues into what feels like a five-minute breakdown is one of the downfalls of the conclusion – within a short space of time, one learns that not only is Jimmy’s love interest Black (in contrast to him), but Alvarado’s son is gay and Jimmy’s step-daughter is also Black, which is a bone of contention in the familial dynamic. Though all of these social commentaries are important, the play does not give them the space they need to breathe; instead, it squashes them into the end, almost to tick boxes, rather than bring any real depth.
All in all, the most poignant aspect of the story that most viewers should take away with them is that no one is beyond saving. This is evident in Jimmy’s eventual visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and in the fact that he can forgive himself and the country that seemingly wronged him. Whether or not this is the best medium or way to explain the intricacies of the war and the veterans mistreated as a result is another question.
Leaving Vietnam is at Park Theatre from 14th March until 8th April 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: