Birmingham Rep, Birmingham – until 11 February 2017
“I’m a forty-year-old bachelor, who wears orange, likes Michael Bublé, and lived in San Francisco for a year.”
Its rather lazy, and stereotypical, approach to laughing at the gays aside, there’s a quite a lot to enjoy here in the Birmingham REP’s production of the award-winning French play What’s In A Name?. Written by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière, Le Prénom has been widely translated and produced, as well as receiving a film adaptation, but this version translated by Jeremy Sams for Just for Laughs Theatricals, marks the play’s British premiere.
Set in the Peckham apartment of Peter and Elizabeth (of course I went to Birmingham to see a play set 10 minutes from my flat!), the sharp comedy revolves around that staple of many a dramatist – the awkward dinner party. The hosts have invited her brother and his best friend Vincent and his heavily pregnant wife Anna, plus their ‘confirmed bachelor’ friend Carl, and over a Moroccan buffet and bottles of Chateau Margaux 1985, all manner of uncomfortable truths are revealed.
Events are triggered by the rich and boorish Vincent announcing the name of his forthcoming son, something that weighs heavier than usual in these alt-right times, sparking an intellectual conversation which takes an interesting look at freedom of expression and acceptable morality. But from here, long-held grudges, rivalries and recriminations and any number of home truths are fired by and at all five of the guests, not a one remaining unscathed.
And it is here that the level varies a bit, Sams’ translation erring towards sub-sitcom levels as they’re all busy scoring cheap points off each other. At times it works, at times it doesn’t – Peter (Jamie Glover) and Elizabeth’s (Sarah Hadland) effortful liberal identity is perfectly encapsulated in a daughter named Gooseberry, so slagging them them off as ‘Guardian readers’ feels lazy, if not downright redundant. The writing may be fast and frantic but it is also flimsy.
There’s also a slightly odd weighting of the play toward’s Nigel Harman’s Vincent, who acts as a narrator for reasons that never become entirely apparent, the role is scarcely needed here. He’s energetically and increasingly awful but there’s little sense that his commentary should be valued over anyone else’s. That said, there’s good work from Olivia Poulet and Raymond Coulthard too, and the night actually belongs to Hadland in the end, as she eventually bursts forth in a titanic speech of bottled-up rage and bitterness that is beautifully humane. A mixed bag then – a sharp comedy with some strong aspects, but it’s also a show that asks you, and permits you, to laugh at someone being called a ponce.