Like a fine wine, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Mr Whatnot has become more refined and much more enjoyed with age. Despite the critical mauling of it’s debut in 1963, the play has proven the test of time and continues to thrill audiences fifty years later.
Certainly One Man, Two Governors Director Cal McCrystal has allowed the play to take on a new shape, for a comically visual feast. The use of musical miming and sound effects allows the play to enjoy a third dimension that closely aligns it with Ayckbourn’s interest in silent screen comedies.
The silence of the play and particularly the muted protagonist, who follows in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and Mr. Bean (with particular resonance of Mr Bean’s piano performance at the Olympics 2012) means the play falls into exuberance and exaggeration creating a bazaar spectacle. The most surreal of these is when McCrystal lurches into Mr Whatnot’s fantasy and we are transported between A World War One battlefield and lunching.
Ayckbourn says of the play that it is ‘purely intended for fun and to reduce the theatre sound man to nervous hysteria’ and consequently the plot is completely incidental. The Mr Whatnot of the title, Mint (Juanma Rodriguez) is summoned to an Edwardian country house, inhabited by endearing toffs, to tune a piano. He is quickly mistaken for one of the guests and uses this to try and court Amanda, the lord of the manor’s daughter. In his conquest he is repeatedly slighted: like a Commedia dell’Arte hero he is made to starve whilst rejecting the entreaties of The Lady, and sparring with Amanda’s previous infatuation: a dashingly pruned young man. The reference to Cucumber sandwiches and the bawdiness of all the characters give the whole play a curiously Wilde eroticism.
Mr Whatnot, is the centre of all this lusting and Juanma Rodriguez performance provides the fire of the play. His caterpillar eyebrows and grimaces roll around his faces, telling more than words ever could. In fact the whole cast were adept at using their mouths for much more than speaking. Their comic timing was fantastic and the whole performance was perfectly executed.
Unfortunately the play has finished its performance at the Royal Derngate, with no further dates planned. Yet it is doubtlessly a play that will re-run and who knows what new developments might lay in wait.