Writers: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre De La Patellière
Adaptor and Director: Jeremy Sams
Reviewer: Pete Benson
It starts as a simple dinner party but will explode into a melee of criticism, accusation and surprise as a joke sparks heated debate.
What’s in a Name started life as a French play, Le Prénom, that was nominated for six Molière Awards when it opened in 2010. It has also recently been successfully adapted by the German film industry. The British incarnation of the production was adapted by Jeremy Sams for Birmingham Rep, and it is a version of that production that is now touring.
The play is set in Peckham in a converted industrial unit, all high windows, bare bricks, girders and a pretentious wall of book-laden shelves beyond which we see the door to the upstairs bedroom where two children sleep. We never see the children but they are a part of the catalyst that propels the momentum of the play.
The setup is simple, Peter and Elizabeth are throwing a dinner party for Elizabeth’s brother Vincent, his pregnant partner Anna and childhood friend Carl. The play is introduced by a narrator played with great élan by Joe Thomas who with an imaginative sleight of hand is also revealed as the main protagonist, Vincent. It is an ill-conceived joke of Vincent’s, which dominates the first act, which leads to the fire and fury in the second. Thomas instils successful businessman, Vincent, with charm and confidence with no hint of his character from Channel Four’s Inbetweeners that he is best known for.
The whole cast is an excellent ensemble. Bo Poraj play’s Peter, Vincent’s lifelong friend and now brother-in-law. Peter is a theoretical liberal, a practising chauvinist and is hypocritically jealous of Vincent’s success. His self-sacrificing wife Elizabeth, played by Laura Patch, goes on a wonderful journey of building frustration exploding into a fury-fuelled tirade as her frustrations finally come roiling out. Patch’s sheer force of energy and the deft writing get a round of applause from the audience.
Alex Gaumond’s enigmatic Carl is the calm within the ensuing storm. Even when he himself is the very eye of the storm, Gaumond still plays him with a calm, dignified demeanour. He has a lovely monologue delivered with a tender truthfulness that is in complete contrast to anything else in the play: it is a difficult change of tone that he handles with great sensitivity.
While act one is the setup with a lot of witty back and forth, act two is the storm into which late comer Anna, soon to be mother of Vincent’s child, arrives. She is portrayed by Summer Strallen as the strong stable part of the relationship. Like Carl, she also retains a calm dignity as around her different alliances form and rupture as they do battle with one another.
Some of the impending fractures in the relationships have been artfully signalled to us by writers, Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière, but there are also some surprising secrets too. The writing is full of witty repartee. A few current British references have been woven in along with a gentle joke at the expense of the French. At times the writers play with the audience’s expectations to splendid effect.
The production is generally solid but perhaps hasn’t quite had enough care and attention in its retooling for touring purposes. One significant speech comes from a character totally hidden by bad blocking and for some of the audience stage lighting flares back off the upstage windows into their eyes.
Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable production, engagingly performed and with some pleasing surprises of both writing and theatricality.
Runs until: 26 October 2019 and on Tour Image: Piers Foley