REVIEW: WHAT’S IN A NAME (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre) ★★★★

Having enjoyed Christopher Hampton’s translations of the French plays of Florian Zeller (most recently the excellent “The Son”) and seen the wonderful touring production of “Amelie” (based on the 2001 French film), I was intrigued to see how Jeremy Sams translated and directed an English version of the 2010 French play “Le Prenom”(also a French film in 2012) for a second UK outing. Whereas the first two leave the action set in Paris, Sams moves it to Peckham, London and updates the references. While the structure and brilliant twists in the second half remain, I was left wondering at the interval whether some of the humour had been lost in the process.

The underlying joke of the play is heavily telegraphed in the poster and programme cover with a baby with a Hitler moustache (no one looking at this would think otherwise and certainly not a Chaplin moustache), so asks the question “What’s in a name?”. When Vincent announces to his sister and brother in law, he intends to name his future son after “Adolphe” a classic French novel of 1816 by Benjamin Constant, there is first disbelief, then shock and dismay that disrupts the dinner party and spills more than the couscous on the floor.

Joe Thomas plays Vincent who partially narrates the story to set the scene and tidy up loose ends. He does not quite capture the evil sense of humour and labours too hard to engage the audience when he breaks the third and fourth wall as if he not yet settled into the part. He is upstaged by a wonderful performance from Laura Patch as his sister Elizabeth, the dutiful wife, willing hostess and attentive mother to her children Gooseberry and Apollinaire (a French 19th century poet). She is pivotal to the action as she dashes offstage to the kitchen, upstairs to the children and honestly reacts to the revelations from her best friend and confidant Karl, her friend Anna and her husband Peter.

Bo Poraj is the horrified husband Peter, supposedly a French linguist Professor, the lifelong friend of Vincent who first introduced him to the book Adolphe and reacts the most vocally to the announcement. Alex Gaumond is very good as Carl, another long-term friend of the family and a Trombonist who joins the dinner at first as a quiet observer until revelations draw him into the arguments. The best sequence of the first half is when Vincent confides in Carl the truth and sets up a very funny double-speak scene when the pregnant Anna (Summer Strallen) arrives late for the dinner.

The play is staged in a sumptuous set designed by Francis O’Connor with stairs to the bedrooms and glass doors to the garden patio and a large six-person sofa centre stage. The shelves are full of books that the Professor would have studied. It is slightly odd and uncomfortable looking that they should eat the meal on the sofa and low coffee table, but it allows them to circle each other on the sofa as the tensions rise. It is quite a scale to tour over the next few months to Glasgow, York, Aylesbury, Cambridge, Windsor, Richmond and Southampton and I hope it fits all those stages!

The slow often dull conversation of the first act with slightly uncomfortable jokes about Hitler salutes and the stunted growth of baby becoming a jockey, give way to a brilliant second act with plenty of laugh out loud moments at the outrageous behaviours and reactions of five friends as the hidden truths are revealed and they turn on each other in a fast paced farcical gallop that is great fun to watch.

Reviewed by Nick Wayne
Photo: Piers Foley


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