Originally premiering in France in 2010, this comedy set at a family and friends dinner party has gone on to become a smash hit in theatres across more than 30 countries. Now it comes to Birmingham Repertory Theatre in a new production by Jeremy Sams.
Written by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière, its themes of sibling rivalry, simmering resentment and bigotry translate to just about any setting. This adaptation moves the action from Paris to a flat in Peckham where couple Elizabeth and Peter are throwing a small dinner party.
Invited are Elizabeth’s brother and Peter’s best friend Vincent, his pregnant wife Anna and their long-term friend Carl.
It all begins so well, with Vincent sharing a photo of that morning’s baby scan while Anna is running late. But it all starts to go horribly wrong when everyone asks the name of the new arrival only for Vincent to announce he is to be called Adolphe – the French equivalent of Adolf.
Horrified, Vincent’s friends and sister desperately try to talk him out of the idea of naming his baby after 'the worst tyrant in history' but reason quickly disappears and cooing over the baby scan is soon replaced by stand-up shouting matches. Anna’s late arrival doesn’t help and what began as a discussion over a baby name erupts into a series of full scale disputes in which decades of jealousies, hurts, misunderstandings and prejudices surface.
Translated by Sams, the dialogue hurtles across the stage, evoking every audience response from belly laughter to shocked silence as the accusations and recriminations fly. Not one member of the party escapes as long-nursed resentments are dredged out of the past and accusations very much of the present surface.
Gabrielle Dawes’ casting is inspired. Nigel Harman plays the charming joker Vincent who initially speaks to the audience, drawing us onto his side. But as the bitterness builds we realise he may not be quite as amusing as he seemed and there is more than a little malice in his humour. Sarah Hadland is his sister Elizabeth who battles to keep the peace by bringing course after course of Moroccan buffet to the table but eventually erupts into a volcano speech full of anger which she has buried over the years. The outburst is so impressive it sparks a round of applause all on its own.
Jamie Glover is the stroppy husband Peter whose belligerence begins the fight and then refuses to let go of it. Long-term friend Carl, played by Raymond Coulthard, has his own skeletons in the cupboard and Olivia Poulet’s Anna veers between trying to calm the evening down and stoking the fire with a few choice epithets.
Francis O’Connor’s design takes us into the family’s lounge tinged in hints of middle class intelligentsia with bookcases crammed with volumes and the obligatory family portrait dominating one wall. It’s slightly posh London with a dusting of self-satisfaction.
Presented by The Rep and Just for Laughs Theatricals, this production of What's in a Name? is so successful because none of the characters are particularly nice or particularly nasty. They’re simply all caught up in their own sense of self-worth and when those senses clash they are more than ready to fling the insults. It’s the fact they are so recognisable which pulls the audience into the dinner party.
At 90 minutes, there is no interval which gives none of the characters a chance to catch their breath – or gain a sense of perspective. There’s no space here, which means the tension and anger just continue to build. Ultimately, it comes to blows but even that can’t dispel the words which have been said and the wounds which have been exposed.
Harman’s character Vincent talks of a sense that there was 'before’ the party and ‘after’ and one can’t help but 'wonder about the conversations the next morning.
What's in a Name? runs at Birmingham Rep until 11 February.