“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
“manages to combine laugh-out-loud dry asides with moments of remarkable honesty and sweetness”
‘What is it and when does it start?’ We at first meet Miles Jupp as actor David Tomlinson as if by accident, as he appears awkwardly trying to leave the stage and apologising for the disruption with typically English deference. In a meta twist which never feels strained or tedious, we’re watching a comic actor play a comic actor reflecting on his life – a life that has lots to teach us about fatherhood, identity and ultimately resilience and love.
Tomlinson is best known as that most English and famous of cinematic fathers, Mr Banks, in the 1964 childhood staple Mary Poppins. The shape of Mr Banks in negative, a silhouette cut out of a door, and tumbling bowler hats are on stage throughout The Life I Lead (also Mr Banks’ signature song) – reminders of a character always present.
In fact, Englishness is shot through James Kettle’s charming script, with plenty of self-deprecating humour and grappling with emotional closeness – and who could pull this off better than that most English of comics, Miles Jupp? The piece, written for Jupp, manages to combine laugh-out-loud dry asides with moments of remarkable honesty and sweetness.
Direction, from Selina Cadell and Didi Hopkins, feels confident, always working in service to Kettle’s writing. The quality script is the star here, with Jupp magnificently animating the cast of characters that populated Tomlinson’s fascinating life. A courtroom set piece where we see Jupp flash between a hoary old judge, an orating lawyer and Tomlinson himself is so remarkable as to receive spontaneous applause.
Lee Newby’s set is simple, invoking a dream-like drawing room which might be a kind of heaven. Certainly Tomlinson tells us that drawing rooms are his sanctuary, querying with the dry wit that characterises the night whether it was worth fighting the Second World War only to lose drawing rooms, and laments his sons’ choices of ‘lounges’ instead. The floor, ceiling and walls are dappled with the shapes of passing clouds, and this is apt; the production reflects deeply on flight and on falls.
Jupp is by turns hilarious and reflective as we hear about Tomlinson’s life and his experiences (so often airborne, like Mary Poppins herself), from the RAF to the plane crash later in life that saw him in court. And we hear about falls of a different kind, including the tragic suicide of Tomlinson’s first wife and his own father’s staggering fall from grace.
Most touchingly, we also explore parenting. We see a father who struggles and one who succeeds, and – like Mr Banks himself – we ultimately see redemption. This is a night with a touch of magic; Mary Poppins would approve.