BWW Review: WHAT'S IN A NAME?, Richmond Theatre
In a world where it is now normal to name your baby Bear, Apple and Denim, it is interesting for a play to explore if a person's name reflect who they really are. In Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière's 2010 comedy Le Prénom, a group of friends is challenged when one couple's decision about what they will name their child causes controversy, arguments and even violence. Translated into English by Jeremy Sams (who also directs), What's in a Name? was a hit play, a film and is now revived for a second time in the UK.
Peter and Elizabeth are both French teachers, with two inventively named children; Gooseberry and Apollinare. They invite friends round for dinner; childhood friend Carl, and couple Vincent and Anna, who is pregnant with their first child. The scene is set for an evening of intellectual conversation, Moroccan mezze and fine wine. So far, so middle-class idyll. Before Anna arrives, Vincent reveals that they plan to name their child Adolphe, after an 1816 French novel.
What follows is a tight performance from the cast of five, with sharp ripostes and witty dialogue as the group explore long-held resentments and accusations. Director Jeremy Sams has created natural and convincing relationships between the group; skilfully exploiting the comedy and also the darker moments to show the tightly drawn characterisations in the script.
Joe Thomas, best known as Simon in The Inbetweeners, is the preening Vincent, convincing in both smugness and arrogance. Inadvertently, he is often the funniest character as he often comes across as incredibly dim. His partner Anna is played by Summer Strallen; seemingly vacuous at first, but developing into a character of much more substance.
Bo Poraj is suitably horrified as Peter. A lifelong friend of Vincent, he was the one who introduced him to the book originally. Poraj is confident and pedantic to the point of annoyance. His belief that he is intellectually superior means he is very good at pointing out the small mistakes of others without apology.
His put-upon wife Elizabeth is played well by Laura Patch, apologising, flapping around and trying to be the perfect hostess. The relationship between Poraj and Patch is particularly convincing, with huge amounts of low-level sniping and passive aggressiveness that often goes on between couples.
Alex Gaumond is also very good as the sensitive, quiet and seemingly neutral Carl, who is reluctantly drawn into the evening's arguments.
One disconnect was the fleeting reference to Anna smoking during pregnancy; for something so controversial, it was not explored and seemed a pointless retention from the original play.
There are echoes of another French play, Yasmin Reza's excellent God Of Carnage, with its focus on the fallout of modern couples as they discuss parenting styles. It also is reminiscent of many of Alan Ayckbourn's cosy, domestic farces. The dialogue is sharp and often very funny, focusing mainly on a comedy of manners. Social divides are lampooned, with only a passing reference to Brexit, but there is interesting and very funny exposition of ego, self-awareness and social expectations.
Francis O'Connor's design of the Peckham loft is full of artfully messy bookshelves and exposed brickwork. It is perhaps a reflection of property prices that the flat does not have space for a dining table and dinner is served at a huge corner sofa.
Despite the initial focus on names, this play is much more about a deep investigation into family, relationships and ego. A tightly-bonded cast and excellent direction make this a highly entertaining night out.
Photo Credit: Piers Foley