Writer: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre De La Patellière
Adaptor and Director: Jeremy Sams
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
What’s In A Name? has it all: belly laughs, moments of great poignancy, characters one can really identify with. All the elements – razor-sharp wit in the writing of Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre De La Patellière, an adaptation from the original French by director Jeremy Sams that is both true to the original and quintessentially English too, crisp direction, and, of course, excellent performances by the entire ensemble cast – come together harmoniously to create a memorable roller-coaster ride for the emotions as one is drawn into the minutiae of the lives of this close-knit group of friends.
The action takes place in the Peter and Elizabeth’s apartment in an up-and-coming area of Peckham. Both are language specialists, Peter teaching at Goldsmiths, Elizabeth in school. Their family is quite perfect – even if their children are named Gooseberry and Apollinaire. Peter and Elizabeth are hosting a dinner party. Guests include Peter’s oldest friend, and Elizabeth’s brother, Vincent, Vincent’s pregnant partner, Anna and Elizabeth’s oldest friend, Carl. Vincent is a successful estate agent and Carl plays trombone with the BBC Symphony. They are comfortable in each other’s company and the affection and trust they all share is obvious.
The evening opens with Vincent playing a narrator, filling in the background, according to his lights, of the characters before joining the party himself. A series of events is triggered as he proudly shows the latest scan of their baby boy and announces the somewhat unusual name chosen. Discussion ensues and escalates into argument as bubbles are created in the air, inflated and unceremoniously burst. Friends this long-standing can have no secrets remaining, surely; yet it seems that there are indeed secrets shared by groups of two or three that come to the fore and test their relationships. But even as the play gets darker, the laughs keep coming. Not smiles or smirks, but eruptions of throaty laughter tempered by the emotions on stage.
Jamie Glover’s Peter is deliciously, and unconsciously, snobbish, pretentious and jealous of the material success of Vincent. Sarah Hadland’s Elizabeth is totally believable as the put-upon wife who sacrificed her own career to support Peter. Her performance is perfectly judged as her frustrations gradually come to the surface and erupt. Raymond Coulthard’s mildly effete Carl is dismissed by Vincent (at the beginning in his rôle as narrator) as being characterised by what he is not, and it is what he is not that defines one of the many twists and turns in the plot. Coulthard plays him so skilfully that we accept Vincent’s description, while also being true to the rather more complex character gradually revealed to us. Nigel Harman’s Vincent is by turn charming and unpleasant while remaining credible. Olivia Poulet’s Anna has her unpredictable aspects as she shares a secret that is powerfully revealed.
Every character is fully rounded and no aspect of any performance jars – we are right there with them, sharing their joys and shocks, for example, Vincent’s off-colour jokes about Anna’s pregnancy are greeted with gasps then nervous giggles across the auditorium.
Sams’ direction never lets the pace sag as each mini-crisis rolls in and builds on the last. He retains the humour while avoiding farce, a tricky line to navigate but one he treads surefootedly. Francis O’Connor’s detailed set design recreates Peter and Elizabeth’s apartment: reinforcing our understanding of their lives and outlook – as one’s eye takes in the cringeworthy family portrait, the shelves of books that require a library ladder and the contemporary furniture, one gets an immediate feel for their chosen lifestyle.
What’s In A Name? deserves to be seen. It is, quite simply, sublime.
Runs until 11 February 2017| Image: Robert Day