What’s In a Name? — Richmond Theatre, London

Writers: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière

Translator/Adaptor and Director: Jeremy Sams

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Originating in France in 2010, Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière’s Le Prénom found success in over 30 countries before this British adaptation by Jeremy Sams, which first premiered at the Birmingham Rep in 2017.

Now on tour, this Ayckbournesque comedy of manners stars Joe Thomas as Vincent, a dinner guest at his sister and brother-in-law’s warehouse apartment in a gentrified part of Peckham. While the dinner guests await the arrival of Vincent’s pregnant girlfriend Anna (Summer Strallen), Vincent divulges the name they have chosen for their unborn son – Adolphe, after the eponymous hero of Benjamin Constant’s novel.

Except, of course, that when spoken out loud, such a name has a quite different heritage, sending Vincent’s best friend and brother-in-law Peter (Bo Poraj) into apoplexy.

The socio-political and philosophical implications of giving a baby the same name as Hitler – in sound, if not in spelling – might seem like unlikely grounds for comedy, and from time to time that suspicion is borne out. Poraj and Thomas spar with each other effectively enough, though, for the humour to emerge out of character rather than Sams’s otherwise astute translation.

And if that were the only source of conflict, it would make for a pretty thin comedy. But of course, as is the way of such things, one small disagreement has a habit of opening the floodgates; and soon all sorts of undercurrents come crashing to the surface. Tensions between Peter and his wife Elizabeth (Laura Patch) are having their own marital problems; Vincent displays an indifference towards his girlfriend Anna’s (Summer Strallen) clients that doesn’t so much border on racism as make a fully-fledged vacation there. And then, back to the naming of children, there is the omnipresent spectre of Peter and Elizabeth’s own offspring – Gooseberry and Apollinaire.

Only the party’s fifth guest, longtime family friend Carl (Alex Gaumond) seems immune from the social carnage, attempting to be as neutral as Switzerland. But Peter’s attempt to make Vincent look worse – by revealing how his brother-in-law made assumptions about Carl’s sexuality – precipitate both the most damaging (to them) and most trivial (to us) revelation of all.

It all makes for the sort of skewering of middle-class hypocrisy that the best Ayckbourn manages, only occasionally falling back into the sort of cliché to which the rest of Ayckbourn is also prone. The cast are all engaging, making it understandable why they all usually get on, with each containing enough spikes and barbs to make the verbal sparring believable also.

The French origins of the play shine through in its rather deeper examinations of philosophical questions than one might find in such a mainstream comedy written by a British author. Sams’s adaptation and direction, though, softens such references and moulds them into the play’s larger comedic framework, resulting in a play which feels very English in nature.

Continues until 16 November 2019 | Image: Piers Foley

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Philosophical comedy

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