If you put Paris and Peckham together, what do you get? Your immediate thoughts would probably head straight to the side of Del Boy’s three-wheeled “yellow peril” (New York-Paris-Peckham) – until now, that is… Jeremy Sams’ English translation of Le Prénom (a French staple by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière) has swapped Paris for Peckham as family and friends meet for a dinner party; What’s In A Name? is in the middle of a nationwide tour, stopping off at Richmond Theatre this week.
Elizabeth has been slaving away in the kitchen to create a Moroccan banquet, the children are asleep, and the guests are about to arrive – but husband Peter is fussing over where the spare car keys are… Soon her best friend Carl arrives, followed by brother Vincent, and they make a start on the food rather than wait for Vincent’s pregnant partner Anna. Other than Carl’s proposed move to Glasgow, the hot topic of conversation is the impending arrival of Vincent & Anna’s first child; outspoken and stubborn to the extreme, Vincent announces their choice of name to the shocked group and a tense debate ensues. However, this is just an appetiser for the main event, as it unleashes long-held resentments and brings an unexpected secret out in the open…
Billed as a comedy, for me it’s slightly more of a comedy-drama; there are some absolutely excellent one-liners dotted throughout the play, and there is a quick descent into farce as Vincent & Peter spar with one another over baby names, however it also taps into the drama that can brew amongst relatives and within friendship groups – the kind that tends to go unspoken until a tipping point is reached and it all overflows. A certain je ne sais quoi remains and hints at the play’s French origins, however Sams’ adaptation has done an excellent job of re-rooting the action in an up-and-coming area of London, with all the foibles of English behaviour on show.
Francis O’Connor’s set is impressive, incorporating two floors and an outdoor area within the performance space; though it’s obviously practically-minded (for the purpose of touring), it doesn’t feel forced or unnecessarily compact. Everything serves a purpose and fits in neatly with the show. There’s even ample space for Vincent to step away from events and act as part-time narrator at the beginning and end – a tool that has varying efficacy, but definitely comes in handy when approaching the interval.
The focus of the play is mostly on the two old friends (and brothers-in-law) Peter and Vincent, but each of the five cast members gets ample opportunity to be centre of attention at one point or another. Laura Patch may be on and off the stage at regular intervals as Elizabeth deals with the food, the children & any other emergencies – in true working mum style – but this only serves to make her final outburst all the more damning and hilarious, exiting the stage to a round of applause. Alex Gaumond takes Carl’s position as “Switzerland” to heart, staying pleasant yet neutral until he can avoid the conversation no longer, though remaining sensitive to the last.
Anna may arrive late, as committed to her career as ever, but that doesn’t mean Summer Strallen doesn’t make the most of her role in the story; she so expertly looks daggers at her onstage partner that you can almost feel her fury – in truth, at times she needs to do very little in order to make the audience erupt with laughter. As Peter, Bo Poraj is impressive and copes well with the sheer volume of rants upon which his character embarks; Peter’s liberal stance and occasional sanctimoniousness make him a rather recognisable figure, which Poraj balances with excellent comic timing. Joe Thomas’ deadpan approach to Vincent is an interesting one – it works perfectly for Vincent’s attempts to wind Peter up, as it makes him inscrutable, though at times it doesn’t feel as natural as it could. Overall, however, Thomas is terrific value – he leads the show brilliantly and really seems to know the power & effectiveness of swearing.
My verdict? A comedy-drama that’s packed full of great one-liners whilst maintaining a dark edge – the cast are uniformly excellent.