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Elizabeth, Peter, Carl, the newly arrived Anna and Vincent in the lull before the storm

What’s in a Name?

The Alexandra Theatre


When I first saw it at Birmingham Rep it was the funniest play I had seen this century and, three years on, nothing has really changed except for the cast.

We pride ourselves on British humour but the French do their bit as well with plays such as Heroes, one of my favourites, the pomposity of Art and this tale of everyday married folk and, should we say, an indeterminate trombone player, second trombonist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Indeterminate in that he is a 40-year-old bachelor, wears orange shirts, doesn’t have a girlfriend, or indeed any relationship we know of . . . and did live in San Francisco for a year. Not judging, just saying, at least that is what Vincent tells us, and he should know as he drives a flash Merc as big as a tank and buys £500 bottles of Plonk  - that’s wine with a capital P.

It is a delightful performance by Joe Thomas, he of The Inbetweeners, as the cheeky chappy, school failure, life success, whose life seems to consist of making money and winding people up. He inherited his late father's estate agency, turning it into a property empire.

He is sister of Elizabeth played, in and out of the kitchen, by Emma Carter. She has given up her promising career and indeed her doctorate studies, to become a mum and now teaches French at a free school nearby.

She is married to Peter, played with a sort of defensive aggression by Bo Poraj, someone, she, and Vincent, have known since childhood. He is a lecturer in French studies at Goldsmiths Uni.

It is easy to see they are a typical happily married couple as bickering is their default position, anything missing, such as car keys, for example, is obviously the wife’s fault and children are almost always her responsibility as well, particularly when it comes to the boring bits like putting them to bed or dealing with them waking up during the night.

Their children by the way are son Apollinaire and daughter Gooseberry – yes, I know, trendy or what? Fits in well with the style of the trendy dinner party though, where Elizabeth has invited Vincent, and his wife, along with Carl and his. . . well trombone.

The menu is a collection of Moroccan starters that few outside natives of Marrakesh have heard of and a main of couscous in a trendy tagine with raisins which are neither too plump nor two wrinkled as per instruction by telephone by mum Clara.

Carl, Canadian Alex Gaumond, arrives straight from a concert in full symphony orchestra dress, tails, white bow and waistcoat, which is really dressing for dinner.


Joe Thomas sets the scene as agent provocateur Vincent. Pictures: Piers Foley

Which leaves us waiting for Vincent’s wife Anna, played by Louise Marwood, who is heavy with child, and late – for the dinner party not the childbirth – because of a meeting with some Japanese according to Vincent . . .Japanese who are actually Korean.

Her meeting and delay means Vincent is left to amuse himself, and, as Anna had a scan that very morning he is quizzed about sex and name . . . now I won’t give the game away by telling you what he has decided to call his son but let’s just say the picture on the posters and the programme does narrow the choice down a bit, and to give you a clue, it isn’t Charlie, and it did not receive universal, or, to be honest, any approval.

And that is the catalyst for familial warfare as years of friendship, brother and sisterhood, a drowned poodle –-don’t ask – and children’s names become weaponised - remember Gooseberry and Apolinaire? Anna certainly did as she was presented with the wrong end of the stick entirely which launched her on her own skirmish to open up a new battle front. Luckily the interval intervened with a ceasefire.

Hostilities resumed with Carl, another childhood friend, finding himself centre stage for once.

He is a sort of quiet observer, in the background, with conversation which might cause a hint of a stir but never a wave . . . until it is let slip that Vincent has a sobriquet for him which is, well, less than PC and relates to . . . remember the orange shirts and San Francisco.

Which raises Carl’s well cultured hackles just enough for him to drop, reluctantly, not so much a bombshell as a weapon of mass destruction, the sort of revelation which means life for the five of them will now have its own version of BC, before Carl in this case, as he becomes the reference point for an evening when relationships will never be quite the same again.

Translated and adapted by director Jeremy Sams, Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Petellière’s 2010 play Le Prénon (First Name) was transported from Paris to the leafy boulevards of . . . Peckham, home of the likes of Del Boy.

There is no reliance on gags, jokes, slapstick or farce for laughs – the stock in trade of much of theatre comedy – instead this is all down to the characters and what they say and how they react, and that is what makes it both gloriously funny, and a little unnerving, particularly for those married for any length of time, or who has ever been to a dinner party, with or without Moroccan food; we can all recognise traits, and even the characters, perhaps even ourselves.


Bo Poraj as Peter, Alex Gaumond as Carl and Joe Thomas as Vincent

Married couples who find a sort of comfort in a sort of steady diet of mild conflict, passion with sparring, then there are friends, or relatives who take jokes too far, who you are never sure are not sending you up, who skirt around the edges of good taste and then there are the loners – usually men of an age when all their friends are married, some more than once.

There are those who have played the field, of course, and are finding suitable opponents harder to come by as wedding bells have taken their toll over the years, and then there are the Carls, who have never seemed to be in the game at all and have gone from teen to near middle age without any visible romantic ripple. But still waters run deep as they say.

Sams has done a fine job of creating two plays from one. The first act sets the scene with laughs a plenty. The jokey Vincent, the left wing lecturer Peter who is easily affronted, the mildly amused  Carl and the fussing Elizabeth, with her over the top menu, and then there is Anna who with the scene now set, arrives to unwittingly start the war. It is all gloriously funny.

The second act has laughs, plenty of them, but the mood has changed, it is now a less comfortable watch, emotions are raw, the laughs are a bit more hollow and a lot closer to home.

Elizabeth launches into a long tirade against husband Peter, brother Vincent and friend, or at least he was in act one, Carl – Anna being dismissed in a sentence – a monologue of moans which had most men in the audience visibly shrinking as she covered character flaws, selfishness and everything from leaving wives to deal with children and do everything in the home to not even putting anything away or tidying up.

It will be heralded as girl power, female empowerment and the like in these #MeToo days, but for most married men it is far more than that - it is fear, a bit like Pavlov’s dogs, having heard most of the complaints and moans before. Women in the audience cheered and whooped, while men looked nervously at their shoes hoping they would not get an action replay for old time’s sake when they got home.

Francis O’Connor gives us a trendy setting for a well written, cleverly adapted and witty play which manages to make you laugh and think. It is beautifully acted with a few tweaks since its premiere and is still one of the funniest, most original and sharpest plays around. To 14-03-20.

Roger Clarke


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