“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
“a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes”
The premise for Alexis Michalik’s play is a simple one: a director, an actor and a social worker go into a maximum security prison to hold a drama class for the inmates. Only two prisoners turn up. The class goes ahead anyway, and truths are revealed. It is described in the press release as ‘a captivating and darkly comic exploration of life, within the walls’, and, at a time when knife crime is on the rise in London, and just under 79,000 men are currently being held in British prisons (figure from Home Office website) this seemed like a brave and timely piece of theatre for the Park to be staging. Instead, what a thoroughly bland and disappointing ninety minutes it was.
In the programme notes, Michalik describes meeting some maximum security prisoners and how this meeting intrigued him sufficiently to lead him to write this play. One can only wish that this interest had led him to do some more thorough research. Among the more idiotic plot points of this drama was the fact that a child was conceived between a maximum security prisoner and a visitor during visiting time. As someone who has spent a great deal of time visiting prisons in the UK over the past three years, this reviewer can testify to the complete impossibility of this premise. Similarly, the idea of three lay people with little or no prison experience behind them being left alone with two violent offenders is absurd, as is the fact that the director would (a) be allowed and (b) have the utter front to ask an allegedly violent offender to re-enact the circumstances that led him to his imprisonment. There are some extraordinary companies and organisations creating drama with prisoners and ex-offenders in this country (Clean Break and Synergy Theatre Project to name two); it might have been an idea to engage with them.
The play is translated from the French, so it may well be that some of these issues are explained by cultural difference, but if you are clearly locating the action in the UK – Norwich and Durham are name-checked – this is basic stuff.
The drama opens with the director (played, with meta-theatrical symmetry, by the director, Che Walker) asking the audience directly, ‘What does theatre mean to you?’. The first audience member to answer replied ‘Storytelling’, and here, alas, this play fell short. It was impossible to understand why this story was being told, and also, particularly in the second half, it was not easy to follow such story as there was, as it was being told. Che’s director-character also made much of the power of emotion, and again, despite numerous on-stage breakdowns, the performances here, by and large, remained resolutely surface and unconnected throughout. Victor Gardener, as Angel, brought some welcome gravitas to the stage, but the characterisation in the main seemed skittish, rushed and unfocused. It takes more than a change of accent to outline a new character, and the lack of physical change in the performers from role to role was notable.
Accents that worked well were found in the sound and lighting design. Rio Kai’s double bass playing in the onstage underscore was a highlight, and David Howe provided some deft atmospheric changes with his lighting design, particularly against the back wall. Despite these efforts however, and ironically, given its meta-theatrical nature, Intra Muros remained theatrically unsatisfying, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.