“very funny with a great cast served up in a pleasing package”
What’s in a Name? In this case it’s the motor for an evening of smart, snappy comedy about a dinner party that spirals hopelessly out of control when a daft joke about a baby’s name leads to some devastating family revelations.
With over 100 productions since 2010 in 22 languages and 30+ countries, this play by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière is big box office, with a string of awards to its credit. It’s also a successful film, under its French title Le Prénom. The five characters – a brother and sister, their partners and one secretive childhood friend – all get big moments in this tight ensemble piece that’s full of witty one-liners.
Joe Thomas (best known as Simon in E4’s The Inbetweeners) is the first on stage with a rapid commentary on the action that’s about to unfold. He gives a high energy performance as Vincent, a cocky, Daily Mail reading wide-boy who’s made a packet out of property. He’s a perfect foil for his earnest professorial brother-in-law (RADA-trained Bo Poraj, Mike in Miranda). Laura Patch turns things up a notch when she gets her own back on the sparring males, who are too busy arguing to pay attention to her struggles with the tagine. Alex Gaumond is a quiet trombonist who gets to spring the biggest surprise, to the consternation of the rest of the cast including the stylishly pregnant Summer Strallen as Vincent’s wife.
The home truths served up at this spicy dinner party gone wrong kept the audience amused last night, but was there any meat on the elegant bones? The production premiered at the Birmingham Rep in 2017 and is here directed, with a new cast, by its translator, Jeremy Sams. He’s anglicised a particularly Parisian text (everyone here knows Benjamin Constant’s 1815 novel Adolphe) that’s peppered with just the kind of philosophical wordplay that French intellectuals love. But he’s set it not in the 20th arrondissement but in a Peckham warehouse conversion. There’s more swearing and class differentiation than you’d expect among Parisian academics, and the play occupies a slightly uneasy space somewhere between Yasmina Reza’s Art and one of Alan Ayckbourn’s social satires.
What’s in a Name is very funny with a great cast served up in a pleasing package (a clever and satisfyingly detailed set by Francis O’Connor). But this light soufflé of a play ultimately left me wanting a bit more substance.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Piers Foley
What’s in a Name?
Theatre Royal Windsor until 9th November then UK tour continues
“there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating”
Michel Legrand, who sadly passed away at the beginning of the year, was a prolific composer who, having written over two hundred film and television scores, only made his theatre debut in his late sixties with his musical fantasy, “Amour”, as it has come to be called. Bearing all the hall marks of a labour of love, it started life as a bijou musical based on the short story, “Le Passe Muraille”, by Marcel Aymé. A hit in Paris, it unfortunately didn’t travel well when it was given the Broadway treatment. Despite Jeremy Sams’ reshaping of the operetta, its modesty and style couldn’t really cope on Broadway and it closed after two weeks. It is essentially a chamber piece, and still remains so, which is why its Gallic charm fits perfectly under the arches of Charing Cross Station.
It is beautifully staged here by director Hannah Chissick and it certainly recaptures the show’s original dreamlike and wistful atmosphere. Sung through entirely, we rely on Sams’ libretto for the story, in which an unassuming office worker becomes a modern day ‘Robin Hood’ folk hero. Arriving home after work one evening, Dusoleil (Gary Tushaw) discovers he can walk through walls. Although initially seeking a cure for this from his doctor, he decides to use his powers to his advantage; stealing bread and jewels to give to the whores and street vendors of the town, but ultimately to win the heart of his beloved Isabelle (Anna O’Byrne).
The surreal and fairy-tale atmosphere is matched by Legrand’s hypnotic melodies while Sams’ lyrics are crafted to perfection; bristling with internal and external rhymes. But just when you think you are getting too much tongue-twisting cleverness, we are soothed by the legato of a love song. Tushaw leads the show with a presence that has hints of Chaplin and Tati, yet his voice has its own character entirely, simultaneously clear as cut-glass but smooth as an oak-cask single malt. Similarly, O’Byrne’s soprano is the perfect accompaniment. Although essentially the story of the man who walks through walls, Tushaw generously doesn’t pull focus, and the ensemble nature of the show lets us have a taste of each character; from Claire Machin’s tart-with-a-heart through to Alasdair Harvey’s chief prosecutor with a shady past; Jack Reitman’s dodgy doctor and, of course, the Gendarmes. Like the story that, thankfully, avoids a predictable ending, the medley of stock characters avoid caricature – testament to the uniformly strong and nuanced performances.
On the surface this could appear overly lightweight, yet there is more to it than meets the eye and there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating. It is an engrossing production, with definite surreal touches, enhanced by Adrian Gee’s set and costume design that befittingly evokes a Magritte painting. Yet as witty and thought provoking as it is, the underlying love story doesn’t quite pull at the heart strings quite as it should, although the endearing qualities of this mad cap musical certainly warm the heart.