by Alan Ayckbourn.
Royal and Derngate (Royal auditorium) Guildhall Street NN1 1DP To 6 April 2013.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm except 26 Apr 5pm no performance 1 April Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Audio-described 3 Apr & 4 Apr 2.30pm.
BSL Signed 4 Apr 7.45pm.
Captioned 2 Apr.
Post-show Discussion 12 Feb.
Runs 1hr 55min One interval.
Tickets: 01604 624811.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 March.
Visually inventive revival of Ayckbourn’s sounds and silences comedy.
It was Alan Ayckbourn’s sixth play but Mr Whatnot, receiving a 50th anniversary production in Northampton, is the earliest of his pieces anyone’s likely to see. And the first Ayckbourn to reach the West End, only three years later followed by Relatively Speaking*.
If the West End it reached in 1964 (from Stoke-on-Trent, not Scarborough) was atypical – the small, club-like Arts Theatre where Waiting for Godot had its West End opening under a decade before – Whatnot is not what an Ayckbourn play feels like, though it announces the formal experiments he went on to make.
Artfully, its non-talking piano-tuner Mint, surrounded initially by sound effects, is summoned to the orf-key grand at the local mansion, where the stuffily grand Slingsby-Craddocks are marrying-off delightful daughter Amanda to piano-playing upper-class twit Cecil. Starting as a tradesman Mint somehow becomes a guest and, like the silent film comedians to whom the play’s partly a tribute his presence is disruptive both through his innocence (he never can get any food) and mischievousness. He sets most female hearts and in the case of Flick Ferdinando’s Tweedy Lady, her not inconsiderable breast, aflutter.
The light-washed colouring of Lucy Bradridge’s design and the sexual elements of Cal McCrystal’s production, variously irritating and hilarious in its invention, now recall the more joyous aspects of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus from a decade later. The action moves from taking us round the house to World War I trenches – buns standing-in for grenades in an old man’s memory among freewheeling comic images and space, right to the beautifully choreographed curtain-call, culminating in a final Buster Keaton reference.
Juanma Rodriguez’s Mint combines wide-eyed innocence with knowing expressions – a clown-like figure, several future Ayckbourn protagonists could be his descendents with words put in their mouths. Around him the chattering upper-class is well-represented by Antonia Kinley’s yearning Amanda, Liz Crowther, openly lustful as her mother and Flick Ferdinando representing desire not always concealed beneath tweeds plus Charles Hunt’s arrogantly jealous Cecil. And, supremely, by long-term Ayckbourn hand Russell Dixon, boomingly abstracted beneath white whiskers and straw hat – a splendid, splenetic, minutely detailed performance.
Lady Slingsby-Craddock: Liz Crowther.
Lord Slingsby-Craddock: Russell Dixon.
Tweedy Lady/Maid: Flick Ferdinando.
Cecil: Charles Hunt.
Butler/Cyclist/Gardener/Vicar: George Keeler.
Amanda: Antonia Kinlay.
Mint: Juanma Rodriguez.
Director: Cal McCrystal.
Designer: Lucy Bradridge.
Lighting: Richard Godin.
Sound: Helen Atkinson.
Choreographer: Ivan Fabrega.
Assistant director: Ian Nicholson.
*In his programme note director Cal McCrystal states Mr Whatnot has not been professionally performed since 1976. In fact there was a production at the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme, which opened on 30 December 1987, with Paul McCleary playing Mint. For some reason this is not included in Simon Murgatroyd’s otherwise excellent website www.alanayckbourn.net.