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Review: Leaving Vietnam (Park Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

By the time the United States withdrew from the Vietnam War, their military presence had long been a subject of domestic scrutiny and protest. While an increasing number believed that those military units had no place in the conflict, and that significantly more harm was done than good, this didn’t detract from the emotional turmoil warfare creates in the minds of its soldiers. This combination of trauma and backlash is explored in Leaving Vietnam, now open at the Park Theatre.

Playwright and performer Richard Vergette takes on the role of Jimmy, the lone on-stage character, and a veteran of the conflict. Set roughly in the here and now, Jimmy “Dutch” Vandenberg owns a garage where he gets by on his extensive knowledge of classic cars, the age of which means most local mechanics don’t know their ins and outs. Describing and periodically re-enacting moments from those years, and the equally challenging decades since, Mr Vandenberg guides us through a journey towards what he felt was right, and how it brought him to more controversial decisions.

Vergette’s script is insightful and legitimately thoughtful, always exploring its central character as a complete human being rather than an arbiter of what is either the right choice or the wrong one. Dutch’s use of racial slurs and discomfort towards a homosexual character in the final scenes feel authentic to the man being portrayed, and Mr Vergette’s text trusts the audience to distinguish where the character’s flaws lay. It is, admittedly, a tad heavy-handed that Dutch’s more questionable views – he briefly sports a MAGA cap, a major problem in his inter-racial marriage – seem to be resolved by his eventual connection with a gay Mexican American. While feeling organic as it happened, the reverse-white-saviour implication did give me some pause.

Vergette the playwright has played to Vergette the performer’s strengths beautifully, demonstrating a knack for understated, guarded emotions. When called on to relive a particularly daunting experience, he retreats into a flatter, more matter-of-fact delivery which we quickly realise is the habit of a man coping increasingly poorly with decades of post-traumatic stress. Vergette also brings to life each of his supporting characters, though none ever appear on stage – minor changes in his delivery indicate entire conversations between Dutch and his wife, his fellow soldiers, or his old friends. We walk away feeling like we know at least a little about each of the other characters, despite our never officially meeting any of them.

Jimmy Vandenberg’s characterisation also serves to explore some of the less common talking points of post-war struggles. As portrayed by Vergette, Jimmy is never fully likable, gruff old man that he is, but he’s also never without sympathy. The character’s brief political allegiance stems from his feeling undervalued despite tremendous loss, and while difficult to agree with the choice it’s shockingly easy to see how he reached his conclusion.

Co-directed by Andrew Pearson and producer Andy Jordan, the pair opt to keep things simple. Rather than overcrowd the script with visual tricks or an abundance of props, Vergette is left largely to his own devices, telling the story through changes in tone helped onto by the odd lighting cue or sound effect. Pearson and Jordan’s staging creates the desired environment – a small desk alongside a gas cannister and shelves with car parts and engineering book – but has clearly been assembled with an awareness that the frequent flashbacks will need room to breathe and space for both the audience’s and the character’s imaginations.

The lighting by Christopher Corner becomes almost uncomfortably bright when called for, such as when a nervous, youthful Dutch first meets and interviews with his commanding officers. Elsewhere, darkness is allowed to fall ever so slightly to keep the environment in balance with his emotional state. Sound effects such as gunfire and the dropping of explosives are employed to help clarify key moments and build the intensity of scenes. While mostly effective, there was an odd quietness to the sound of an explosive falling and exploding close by – perhaps this was meant to indicate how far Dutch has pushed this moment from his mind, but it momentarily took me out of the story.

Performed and written by a stellar talent who understands his character so fully I felt I could ask him anything about Jimmy Vandenberg and be met with an authentic answer, Leaving Vietnam dances around some of the trappings of the oft-produced wartime genre while delving into some nuanced and less-explored complexities of the mindset created by returning from a traumatic experience to be told that the “right thing” you watched thousands die for may not have been as honourable as you had believed.


Leaving Vietnam plays at Park Theatre’s Park 90 until April 9th

Tickets and information can be found at:

Photos by Jane Hobson

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