Inbetweeners star Joe Thomas asks What's In A Name? at NST Campus
It’s the comedy that took Paris by storm, was made into a smash-hit film and received rave reviews when its English-language adaptation premiered in Birmingham two years ago.
So it’s no wonder that Joe Thomas didn’t hesitate to say yes to starring in the first-ever UK tour of What’s In A Name?
‘It’s such a great script,’ says the actor best known for The Inbetweeners and Fresh Meat. ‘I read it really quickly, which is always a good sign. It’s so light on its feet and you think it’s going to be about class and education and the battles we fight over culture, but it moves really laterally and then it turns a corner.’
Joe isn’t saying what’s around that corner, beyond the fact the play becomes about family and chinks in the characters’ armour and how his character Vincent ‘seems like a complete wind-up merchant in the beginning but by the end he’s deeply cut-up.’
In Jeremy Sams’ adaptation Vincent is a father-to-be who, along with his partner Anna, is invited to dinner at his sister Elizabeth and her husband Peter’s Peckham flat where childhood friend Carl is also in attendance. Then Vincent drops a bombshell about the name he’s chosen for his offspring and, as the siblings and their significant others begin to pick at old sores and long-held resentments, Carl has his own bombshell to drop.
At times they’re a very un-PC bunch as they bitch and bicker, with Sams’ script artfully straddling the line between what’s funny and offensive.
After three Inbetweeners seasons and two feature films Thomas is no stranger to straddling the same line himself, saying: ‘It’s an incredibly precise act of judgement that’s required but this play is an exploration of what PC actually is and I think that’s interesting territory. It shows the intelligence of the writing, how funnily and deftly that idea is explored.’
The UK tour, which Sams is also directing and which takes in eight venues across three months, is presented by Adam Blanshay Productions, with Adam himself hailing the play as ‘very funny but also very sophisticated and dark and a little sardonic’. He laughs. ‘And it’s written from a neutral standpoint so everyone is offended and applauded in equal measure.’
Penned by Matthew Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière, the original French production premiered at the Théâtre Édouard VII in Paris in 2010 as Le Prénom and went on to notch up more than 300 performances and garner six Molière Award nominations (equivalent to the UK’s Olivier Awards). The 2011 film version won two César Awards, there have been Italian and German movie versions, and the play has been translated into 22 languages.
Having seen the French-Canadian adaptation in Montreal, Adam was thrilled to be able to bring it to the UK in 2017 with Jeremy Sams’ acclaimed adaptation. A few tweaks have been made for the touring production, with the producer pointing out: ‘We’re very much setting it in 2019 and Jeremy has done a great refresh of the script to make it relevant to today. One of the things I’m keen to explore is how in a play that’s driven by men the female characters have the upper hand in the end. The last time we did the show it was pre-#MeToo and now we’re looking at it post-#MeToo and bringing that female empowerment theme to it.’
The strong female element is something that drew Summer Strallen to the role of Anna, who has a high-powered job in the fashion industry. ‘That was very interesting to me, plus Anna doesn’t back down in an argument, she stands up for herself.’
The multiple Olivier Award nominee feels the play’s inclusion of strong female characters will especially resonate with women today, saying: ‘I’ve been working since I was 16 years old and wouldn’t ever have a man come in and tell me how to live my life, but when I was a kid it was all about finding a husband and him looking after you. I think it’s interesting having this conversation now.’
Relocating the action from Paris to London means it resonates more for UK audiences and Strallen agrees that the comedy comes from audiences recognising their own flaws and foibles. ‘It’s not about laughing at things, it’s about laughing with them, processing things and moving forward.’
Laura Patch, who plays Elizabeth, thinks audiences will also relate to ‘the secret banter people have that doesn’t always rest in some politically correct forum’ such as Vincent’s more outrageous mutterings.
The actress and comedian, whose credits include Dolly and Laura and Being Human, adds: ‘You’ve got to be able to make a joke because it’s a way to release social tension. The brain goes: “That’s wrong. What do I do? I laugh”. I like the fact it’s more of a debate and it doesn’t try to solve anything. It isn’t going “You’re good if you think this way,” or “You’re bad if you think that way”.’
Alex Gaumond, the Canadian actor most recently seen in the West End revival of Company, is relishing playing Carl. ‘It’s one of those roles that simmers. He’s rarely the one who is driving the conversation but he has this massive secret so he could at any point drop the bombshell.’
When he finally does then all comedy hell breaks loose, although the actor points out there are universal truths amongst all the laughs.
‘It’s essentially about a family and everybody has a family, whether they’re connected with them or not. And most people, if not everyone, have been at a social dinner with family where everybody falls into the category they’ve evolved into over time, like “the joker” and “the sensible one”. When all of those roles are completely twisted and turned around, as they are in the play with plot twists and people finally telling other people what they think of them, it’s thrilling and hilarious to watch.’
Completing the cast is Bo Poraj as Peter. The Miranda and Musketeers star feels What’s In A Name? really taps into the zeitgeist. Peter and Elizabeth having given their children very quirky names.
‘And the fashion for strange names for kids is not something I’ve seen picked apart in public discourse before,’ Bo notes. ‘The play also picks up on universal themes like friendship and secrets and family.’
Poraj also feels audiences up and down the country are ready for a cracking good comedy.
‘This is 90 minutes of escapism and laughter. I hope people will find it entertaining and a sort of release. We definitely need a bit of levity in these crazy times we’re living in.’
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
NST Campus, Southampton