Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Cal McCrystal
Reviewer: Sue Dixon
Alan Ayckbourn is known as one of the country’s most prolific and popular playwrights, yet Mr Whatnot, one of his earliest plays, remains little known. It was first produced in Stoke-on-Trent in 1963 and in an interview at the time Ayckbourn said: ‘”It has no message, no claims to anything deep or mysterious. The people in it do exist – just buy a copy of The Tatler and you’ll see where I pinched the dialogue from”. He wanted his audiences to just laugh and enjoy the silly exploits of Mr Whatnot, who blunders into this play with his own style of intelligent “goonery”.
In 1963 it was described as an unusual piece of theatrical experimentation, performed in the round and thought to be a passing novelty which received very poor reviews. You can see that this would have been too avant-garde, even for the 1960s. Indeed much of the absurd and mimed events that produce the side-splitting hilarity, derive from the fact that much of it is done in silence; a strange thing at first, if you had little or no direct experience of silent films.
This version is directed by the brilliant Cal McCrystal, physical comedy director for One Man, Two Guvnors and as long term collaborator with Spymonkey always raising the bar on comedy for audiences in Northampton.
The central character, Mint (to become known as Mr Whatnot) is played spectacularly by Juanma Rodriguez, who manages to use the whole of his body at some point or another to produce loud audience laughter. He first appears as a simple soul, leaves his small flat and arrives at the stately home of Lord and Lady Slingsby-Craddock to tune their piano. He is, in fact, a highly imaginative, surreal character who attempts to win the affections of their daughter Amanda, played by Antonia Kinlay. Rodriquez depicts Mint as slightly bewildered and anxious to please, like an archetypal Chaplin or Keaton character, who seems to wander unintentionally into the strange world of this upper class family. This is a family that is blimpish and stupid enough to mistake him for a house guest and therefore encircle him in their world of tea parties and tennis.
The entire cast blends together to form the most delicious aristocratic gene pool of buffoonery, each character adding their own charm and talent to the mix.The set is merely symbolic, as the main focus remains the physical action on stage, its large columns depicting the upper class surroundings of the piece. The props, whether real or imagined, are used with brilliant comedic timing: deckchairs and grand pianos to name but two.The sound, under the very talented leadership of Helen Atkinson, is the making of the whole play; without the tight and obviously well-rehearsed sound effects everything could come crashing down and look merely ridiculous. Alongside the equally clever choreography designed by Ivan Fabrega the whole piece becomes an ingenious flow of idiosyncratic silence, facial expression, distinct movements and eccentric dialogue.
It is described in the pre-show literature as Mr Bean meets Downton and you can definitely see those parallels, but it has deeper roots than television – connoisseurs of the silent movies will surely endorse such a clever, funny physical portrayal of the absurdities of upper class living. It is odd, eccentric and completely bonkers. A must see.
Runs until Saturday 6 April 2013