BWW Review: WHAT'S IN A NAME?, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
We all know that you should never judge a book by its cover - but should you ever judge a person by their name?
This is the question posed to us in What's In A Name?, which has landed at Nuffield Southampton Theatres at the end of its first ever UK tour.
Presented by Adam Blanshay Productions, and produced by The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, this play has been adapted and translated by its director, Jeremy Sams, from Le Prénom - a French hit on stage and screen written by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre De La Patellière.
We join Elizabeth and her husband, Peter, for a dinner party they are throwing for Elizabeth's brother, Vincent, and his partner Anna, as well as their life-long family friend Carl. The scene is set for a classy and mature evening of Moroccan cuisine and fine conversation.
However, when Vincent decides to share his somewhat unusual choice of name for his unborn son, the night descends into chaos. Secrets are revealed, judgements are made, and relationships are put to the test. It has all the ingredients for a night of great comedy.
While there is indeed plenty to laugh about throughout the show, the overall result falls a little flat, and does not seem to quite live up to its preceding five-star ratings.
The cast works well as a whole, and each of the characters is believable and recognisable as a person we have all met at some point in our lives; the wife who has been forced to forfeit a career for her kids; the glamorous couple who enjoy spending their cash; and the bachelor whose private life is a mystery.
The Inbetweeners star Joe Thomas takes on the role of yuppie Vincent. While his performance is indeed entertaining, he doesn't appear to relax into the production as much as some of his other cast members. He seems a little uncomfortable in places, and it's not very clear if this is part of his character's persona.
Both Bo Poraj as Peter and Alex Gaumond as Carl give consistently strong performances; Bo's exaggerated anger and incredulity are entertaining, and Alex offers some surprisingly moving moments amidst the bickering and the banter. Vincent's pregnant partner, Anna, is played by Summer Strallen, who is glamorous and glossy and works well alongside her on-stage partner, Joe. A surprising outburst from Laura Patch's Elizabeth earns her some enthusiastic applause from the audience.
The majority of the action is piled into the first half of the production. By the end of the first act, we are left questioning just how the story will develop, as appears to have come to a premature end. After the interval, however, the production's focus changes, and it starts to explore a number of other identities. It's a relief that there's more to the show, and it's equally interesting to see how the concept is further developed and expanded.
Names are not the only element of identity that are explored in What's In A Name?. Themes such as class and gender equality are touched upon throughout, with money and social standing addressed regularly. Current affairs such as Brexit are also alluded to, which gives the conversations between characters a more natural and realistic feel.
The design (Frances O'Connor) places the action in a quintessential middle-class home, which helps us to understand the family at the heart of the story, offers context, and provides an intimate and realistic setting while allowing the focus to remain on the conversations taking place within the space.
A combination of slapstick comedy, confusion, trickery and imperfect characters creates the perfect opportunity for satire. This production has a feel similar to that of a Saturday-night sitcom - think Not Going Out - and there are some moments that really spark. However, the pace wanes a little and the end result feels too long and even slightly lethargic at times, despite plenty going on on stage.
What's In A Name? seems to be as apprehensive and uncertain as its searching title suggests, and while the plot wraps up nicely at the end, it feels as though the question is never really truly answered; at least not confidently.
In spite of its slight shortcomings, however, this production makes for a good evening's entertainment, and is an enjoyable exploration of the realities and truths that lie beneath carefully chosen names and curated lifestyles.
What's In A Name? is at Nuffield Southampton Theatres until 23 November
Photo credit: Piers Foley for Target Live