The King’s Arms, Salford; Sunday 5th September, 2021
Jimmy Vandenberg was well on his way to the American Dream – working as a mechanic for Ford, literally in Motown itself; a new home; a sweetheart to miss, sugar to kiss; perhaps the chance to one day own a ‘69 Mustang of his own?
But this was America in the late ‘60s – and for millions like Jimmy the guardians of the American Dream had set a price for entry, a price that would need to be paid in the jungles of Vietnam.
Leaving Vietnam is a new, one-man show written and performed by actor and playwright Richard Vergette, who delivers most of the performance in the role of modern-day Jimmy recanting the tales of his youth.
The show may be new but the subject matter certainly isn’t – inevitably there will be comparisons to the most famous of all attempted stage renderings, Miss Saigon, which must surely rank as one of theatre’s finest ever examples of abominably tarting up a flawed and deceptive narrative in the name of entertainment.
Unfortunately Leaving Vietnam does the same again, although this time the outcome isn’t at all theatrically disastrous, it’s much more a case of “sorry, no, still not having it”.
Vergette’s performance as Jimmy is outstanding. He undoubtedly comes across as a warm and affable character, a pretty impressive achievement given that the audience has only one hour with him.
Vergette’s Jimmy is full of good stories, full of amusing little anecdotes; he seems to be a perceptive, salt-of-the-Earth kind of mechanic, someone who is observant and intuitive enough to spot and acknowledge the underlying humanity in everyone he talks about, even those who were literally out to kill him.
The writing is also excellent, full of vividly evocative scene-setting where the story easily and effectively jumps from place to place, and from the here and now to way back then. There are some brilliantly written twists in Jimmy’s tale, they genuinely could not be guessed in advance and when they hit they have a powerful, transformative effect – all very impressive for a one-person monologue with virtually no props or set.
But Leaving Vietnam is once again the world of theatre attempting a play about Vietnam which boils back down to a wholly unsavoury narrative: the soldier who furiously demands that his hero status be bestowed upon him, a character asking for the audience to ignore what they know because it upsets him to be maligned when he thinks he should instead be worshipped.
Well written and brilliantly performed, Leaving Vietnam is perfect fringe theatre material but, ultimately, the content jars and even goes so far as to irritate. The creative ecosystem that is theatre has plenty of space and should arguably allow for any voice or narrative to be heard – but this is one we’ve heard before and hearing it repeated again doesn’t really add any greater weight to the underlying proposition being put forward.