The thing about jokers like Vincent (Joe Thomas) is that once they’ve revealed a grave life event to have been an untruth, one is never quite sure whether anything at all they say is a distortion of facts, or even a complete fabrication. Elements in the script of What’s In A Name? have the vibe of a play translated from French (it’s an adaptation of the French movie Le Prènom), to the point where I couldn’t occasionally help thinking it may have been better if the setting had remained in France rather than relocating to Peckham.
Vincent and his partner Anna (Summer Strallen) have decided, or so Vincent says, on a name for their yet unborn child. But the choice of name is so abhorrent to Peter (Bo Paraj), while Peter’s wife Elizabeth (Laura Patch), who is also Vincent’s sister – this play might as well have been called Family Affairs, for this and other reasons – urges caution. Peter and Elizabeth are both French teachers, and there’s considerable talk about a particular French novel. The negative reactions to the choice of baby name are, in your reviewer’s opinion, justified. I wasn’t inclined to give the name away, but the production doesn’t help to keep it a secret when its own marketing publicity includes an image of an infant with a Hitleresque moustache. So, there you have it.
Completing the set of on-stage characters is Carl (Alex Gaumond), a good friend of Peter and Elizabeth, who has a job offer, albeit one in Glasgow – a point repeatedly mentioned but for reasons unknown never properly explored beyond surface level, despite a promise from Elizabeth that they would “talk about” it. It’s all very well performed, and Jeremy Sams’ direction is on point throughout, but when Elizabeth, the nicest person in the group, suddenly flips out, it’s a narrative device that’s been used before elsewhere (for instance, one of the episodes of The Simpsons, the American animated situation comedy, called ‘Hurricane Neddy’, sees Ned Flanders, usually a friendly and compassionate pillar of the local community, lashing out at a number of other characters).
For a show billed as a comedy, I found myself quietly chuckling for the most part rather than heartily laughing. Perhaps it’s the play’s setting – in a front room with dinner being served and conversation flowing freely. It’s the kind of situation that I would prefer to be in rather than observing other people from the outside looking in. But it’s also because none of the characters are likeable, with their collective and individual privileges and smugness coming through in progressively large waves – Anna has a point when she points out that she is not prepared to be lectured on baby names by someone whose own children are called Apollinaire and Gooseberry.
There are punchlines that fell completely flat with me, not because they were offensive – in my view, they weren’t – but merely unfunny. The set (Francis O’Connor) is elaborate, including a book collection so extensive I wasn’t in the least bit inclined to attempt counting how many there were.
The plot twists may well have caused some audible gasps from the audience at the performance I attended, but if these characters’ biggest problem is a confrontational and hard-hitting (in more ways than one) dinner, then, to quote another show set in Peckham, Only Fools and Horses, their lives are well and truly ‘cushty’. All things considered, this briskly paced play is somewhat engaging and enjoyable, though I felt as though I had been served crème caramel and not much else for dinner.
Review by Chris Omaweng
You are invited to take a seat at the table for a riotously funny evening that questions whether a person’s name truly reflects who they are.
Father-to-be Vincent and his partner Anna are invited to dinner by his sister Elizabeth and her husband, Peter. They are joined by childhood friend Carl for a mature and sophisticated gathering.
The meal is lovingly prepared, and wine carefully selected. The friends are prepared for the usual humorous exchanges they’ve come to expect.
But tonight, a startling revelation about the name chosen for Vincent’s and Anna’s expected child becomes the catalyst for a destructive argument which spirals hysterically out of control. Tonight no one is holding back! Egos, childish resentment and unspoken feelings are relentlessly and hilariously exposed for the first time.
This comic masterpiece is adapted by British theatre director, writer and translator Jeremy Sams from award-winning French film and stage sensation Le Prénom, this international smash hit has played over 30 countries and is now on its first-ever UK tour.
What’s In a Name?
13th – 16th November 2019
11th – 14th March 2020
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
15th – 18th April 2020
Theatre Royal Brighton