Mark Ludmon reviews the UK tour of comedy What’s in a Name? starring The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas, currently at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
What’s in a Name?
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (as part of the UK Tour)
UK Tour Schedule
Little modern French drama makes it to Britain. Florian Zeller’s psychological plays about family life are among the rare successes while Yasmin Reza’s ever-popular comedy Art is now 25 years old. At a time when the UK is trying to move away from the rest of Europe, Adam Blanshay Productions has set itself the admirable task of trying to bring some of France’s biggest hits across the Channel. In Paris, Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière’s Le Prénom (meaning “first name”) ran for nearly a year, gaining a string of Molière Award nominations (the Parisian version of the Oliviers), before being turned into a movie. Since then it has gone on to be staged in a variety of languages in more than 30 countries. Leading translator Jeremy Sams has reinvented this global hit as What’s In a Name? which, after premiering at Birmingham Rep in 2017, has been re-cast for a UK tour.
Despite some excellent translation work and being relocated to south-east London, there is still something noticeably French in this story about a dinner party that descends into confrontations and violence. And it’s not just because two of the characters are teachers of French and a key plot device revolves around a classic French novel. Le Prénom is the kind of middle-class comedy that still dominates the Parisian stage, full of witty intellectual banter and ideas, which now seems to have less appeal to British audiences. Much of the cerebral delight of What’s in a Name? comes from the pleasure of hearing clever people debating language and its meanings but the drama never drags, slowly gathering momentum and bigger laughs. What starts as a discussion about the politics of names gradually turns into something more about the secrets and hidden fault lines in the friendships and relationships going back 30 years.
The tour’s publicity displays an image of a baby with a Hitler moustache, so it is no surprise when it emerges that the catalyst for the drama is estate agent Vincent’s announcement that he has chosen a taboo name for his son. The “wacky and bohemian” custom of choosing “original” names for children is one of the chief targets for the satire – the hosts of the dinner party, Peter and Elizabeth, have named their offspring Gooseberry and Apollinaire. Other aspects of bourgeois life come under the spotlight while the party’s Moroccan buffet menu of zaalouk, aubergine caviar and couscous is an extreme of cultural appropriation. It also finds time to tackle a slew of other topics from gentrification to male privilege.
Despite secrets and tensions being exposed, even to the extent of blood being shed, it never feels that friendships and relationships are really at stake. It is good-humoured with an easy-going charm, lifted by strong performances including Bo Poraj as Peter and Summer Strallen as Vincent’s wife, Anna, alongside The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas in his stage debut as cocksure Vincent, Laura Patch as Elizabeth and Alex Gaumond as her childhood friend Carl. Directed by Sams himself, they bounce off each other brilliantly, making this an enjoyable social comedy even if it does lack bite.
It is exciting to see an example of modern French theatre coming to the UK, and Adam Blanshay is also responsible for bringing over other French hits such as Alexis Michalik’s comedy Edmond and musical Notre Dame de Paris. It will be interesting to see what other French finds he brings to Brexit Britain next.
Running at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre to 14 September 2019.