About a hundred years ago, gentle reader, when I was but a lean and callow youth (well, not particularly lean), I was trying to put together a thesis about the withdrawal of stage censorship in the UK in 1968. This was long before the advent of emails and Google, so I wrote letters to many splendid dramatists of the day to ask them if they’d ever had a run-in with the censor. One of those to whom I wrote was Sir Alan Ayckbourn (although he was plain Alan in those days). He kindly responded by saying that he was (and I quote) “in those days a fledgling dramatist as it were and never wrote anything remotely worth censoring”.
Certainly his “Mr Whatnot”, which first saw the light of day in 1963 and was barely heard of again after its disastrous brief London run in 1964, doesn’t grapple with any of the meaty subjects of its illustrious contemporaries. Pinter’s Homecoming, Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, for example, you would have thought were from a completely different era. So reviving this early Ayckbourn is a fascinating experiment in showing a perhaps ignored side of the sixties drama scene.
I knew nothing about the play in advance, other than the fact that it had been a flop, which is something you rarely associate with Ayckbourn. I was, however, impressed with the fact that it was being directed by Cal McCrystal, whose CV includes the physical comedy direction of the wonderful One Man Two Guvnors. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I were away for much of March travelling round South East Asia (blog posts will appear in due course, I trust) so we missed all the excitement of the opening of this production, and in fact just managed to get back home in time to see it on its final Friday night. We enjoyed it so much, that the next day we actually booked to see it again, at the matinee, and took Lady Duncansby along as a surprise treat. I don’t think, in 45 years of theatregoing, I’ve ever gone back to see the same production so rapidly. I also can’t think of another play where the eponymous hero doesn’t say a word. Godot doesn’t count because he never appears; Joe Egg (as in A Day in the Death of…) is a mute child throughout apart from when she skips onto the stage to introduce the interval. If you can think of one, please let me know!
At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, as it presents itself as something so different from “your average play” (whatever that might be). We are introduced to the piano tuner, who goes through his usual domestic morning chores of making a cuppa and attending to his pussycat. This person is, we discover later, Mr Whatnot; a man who does everything in mime, to a range of informative sound effects. Once Mr Whatnot has settled down with his morning paper, we meet the upper class residents and guests of Craddock Grange – and it was at this point that I began to worry a little. They were all very stereotype characters (lord, lady, posh girl, wet fish boyfriend, hearty country lady) but without the stereotype set of an elaborate drawing room/country mansion – you feel that the set of The Mousetrap would be perfect for it. But as the silliness of the play kicks in, you realise that the strength of the production is in the way the audience’s imagination fills in all the gaps, and that the largely blank stage is vital to its success. By the time the lisping toffee-nosed Cecil was getting excited about the sight of “duckth” in the pond I was in seventh heaven of comic entertainment.
The show has so many experimental aspects that really excite me in the theatre. I love the way it breaks the fourth wall; it has elements of burlesque, the plot goes completely off tangent a couple of times into ridiculous flights of fancy and then gets brought back sharply to reality (such as it is); and all this is in the context of a very simple comic story of an outsider wreaking havoc in a domestic environment. There’s not an ounce of cynicism, harshness or sadness in the plot; it’s simply an experiment in finding the comic light and wallowing in it.
Every member of the cast puts in a delightful performance. Liz Crowther’s Lady Slingsby-Craddock is a marvellously comic blend of the refined and the randy, and the way she gets dragged and spun around on the floor is almost balletic! Russell Dixon as his Lordship has immaculate comic timing, and can extend a belly laugh for ages with just one resentful glance at a misbehaving family member. The scene where he merely utters a four-letter word is comic genius simply because of its terrific shock value.
Antonia Kinlay plays Amanda, the rather sweetly thick heiress to the Slingsby-Craddock estate, and she’s superb. She really gets the 60s vibe in her appearance and trendy dancing, and is delightfully provocative to the smitten Mr Whatnot. Her awful beau, Cecil, is played by Charles Hunt and he makes a brilliant priggish spoilt brat of public school idiot.
Flick Ferdinando (what a splendid name) is hilarious as the back-slapping tweedy lady, feverishly competitive at tennis and with no inhibitions where it comes to afternoon tea – and also as the bottom-swinging, flamenco dancing maid; and George Keeler’s performances as all the other minor characters are full of wonderful physical comic business and he invests them all with their own special individuality.
But Juanma Rodriguez as Mint (or Mr Whatnot) has to take the plaudits for his incredible performance. His face is so expressive and his physical comedy so inspired that you simply can’t stop watching him. You could say there is a similarity to Mr Bean – only to an extent though, because Mr Rodriguez’ performance never strays into the grotesque and is always completely believable. You also (well I did at least) really identify yourself with him, and want him to succeed in all his little subversive plans to get the girl. Technically faultless on both performances we saw, his bio in the programme suggests he normally works in Spain, but I really hope we get to see him again in the UK.
It would be a tragedy if this wonderful production were never to see the light of day again. It was a privilege to see it.