What’s in a name?
Joe Thomas, The Inbetweeners, Fresh Meat and White Gold star is touring the UK in the Adam Blanshay Productions What’s In A Name?, the international hit play centred around a Moroccan supper, until 26th October.
Successful on stage and on film
Matthew Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière wrote the original French version of the play, Le Prenom, which was premiered it in Paris in 2010. Since then the success of the play led to a film and productions in 22 languages.
The original UK version was produced by Birmingham Rep in 2017. That was a production that Joe says he didn’t get to see. “It’s kind of an under-the-radar success story, and it’s taken a long time to catch on over here, but we know it’s good because it’s tried and tested elsewhere.”
The Birmingham Rep production was written and directed by Jeremy Sams, and he is at the helm once more for the debut British tour.
The benefit explains Joe of being in a tour of an already established play is that the script can be allowed to speak for itself. The jokes he says work, as an actor you are not “scratching around for laughs that aren’t there.”
Relocated from the glamour of Paris to a flat in Peckham, a London borough famous for another comedy family the 90-minute play revolves around a family dinner party and explores over 90 minutes how family meetings can become awkward when someone says something unexpected
Father-to-be Vincent (Joe Thomas’s role) and his partner Anna are invited to dinner by his sister Elizabeth and her husband, Peter. They are joined by childhood friend Carl, who attends alone.
The meal is lovingly prepared, the wine carefully selected; humorous exchanges are anticipated, but a sudden revelation of the eye-raising name chosen for Vincent’s and Anna’s imminent child triggers a destructive argument that spirals out of control.
As often happens in families no-one holds back as egos, childish resentments and unspoken feelings are relentlessly exposed for the first time.
This production preserves the spirit of the original hit, which highlighted how people hold opinions about family members and friends but keep those opinions to themselves until something triggers an uncontrollable reaction. With an element of class and education added into the mix the production is likely to resonate with British sensibilities.
The dinner party has been used successfully by many writers, to show how in an activity that on the surface appears to be light and frilly, can when other people behave in a particular way or say something specific facilitate the dropping of fronts and the exposure of the deeper levels to their personality, about who they think they are, whose side they’re on.
It’s funny, says Joe, “that these truths often emerge around a table.”
At every dinner party there is the diplomat a role that the outsider Carl, ostensibly takes at this gathering. Caught up in the maelstrom of a family argument, he turns out to be the one whose revelation sets the cat among the pigeons, which results in an argument about why even their friendships aren’t working anymore.
We have all been to a dinner party that got a bit awkward, maybe even disintegrated into an argument or worse. There is a danger that the writers could have succumbed to the temptation to create a kitchen–sink drama that would result in the end of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons for the success What’s in a Name? has enjoyed around the world is that just like real dinner parties the characters says Joe recognise that at the end they “still be friends”
“Throughout the play,” he says, “it makes it funnier because they’re taking grandstanding positions, but it’s not Parliament!”
Joe suggests the play’s universal popularity is rooted in the familiar world it occupies: a family gathering. “We’re all attuned to the small differences to the way it ought to go,” he says. “We can see quite quickly when someone takes umbrage, or someone says something that doesn’t go down well.
When Vincent reveals the baby’s name there something that tells the audience that he intends his revelation to result in an argument. It’s a custom-built little bomb that he’s decided to detonate, but it then takes a sideways step.
A lesser play would descend into a row about politics and would become one-note, whereas What’s in a Name? moves laterally. Vincent is being deliberately provocative, but at that point it goes on to become a general discussion.
The other thing Joe likes is that it’s not just about the substance of the argument but the way they are arguing, like Carl never saying anything opinionated and everyone challenging him about that, but often that’s because he feels embarrassed so he doesn’t join in.”
Joe notes how “little side fires keep starting” as the argument “gets up a head of steam and snowballs, but by the finale nothing terrible has happened, and that’s the nice thing.”
Comparing What’s In A Name’s comedic style with his early days of student comedy, 35-year-old Joe says: that he did a lot of live comedy. He was he says doing sketch comedy but he was really drawn to narrative comedy and to intelligence-based humour, where it was quite wordy.
“Thinking back to how we spoke to each other, we’d get into spats, and the way they argue with each other in this play reminds of that, showing how people get offended by quite minor things.”
There are always topics that we know not to discuss with certain people, says Joe, “but sometimes you wade in and wish you hadn’t”.
“When alcohol is involved, things flare up, and there are code words that come into play in moments when you realise this is the time to stop talking, but in this play everyone is up for a fight, even about petty stuff, so they all pile in, though at first there were all reluctant to do so…though maybe we should all do that more often!”
Joe has “always been of the opinion that the English are the most repressed people in the world and have always taken pride in that characteristic”. “That’s the reason that the English language has the most words, as we need all those words to avoid being direct.
“If you try to translate it into another language, you realise how much we dance around things,” he says.
“In this play, they’re educated people who like the sound of their own voices and are quite happy to enter into a debate, as they’re intellectuals, so they can separate what they say from their emotions.
“But once they’re angry, vulnerability shows through as their intellectual enamel is chipped away and the raw nerve underneath is revealed. In France, that gives way to aggression; in England it leads to oppression.”
Joe Thomas stars in What’s In A Name? until 26th October 2019. more information is available from ATG Tickets