Mr Whatnot: Behind The Scenes

Behind The Scenes offers a glimpse at some rarely known facts regarding the writing of Alan Ayckbourn's plays with material drawn from the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York and the playwright's personal archive.
  • Paul Elsam's book Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer & Provocateur (Bloomsbury, 2013) has the interesting story that the original production of Mr Whatnot was running at the Victoria Theatre when news of President Kennedy's assassination was announced in 1963. The director, Peter Cheeseman, told Alan he believed the evening's performance should be preceded by a two minutes silence which led to an argument with Alan vehemently disagreeing with Peter: "If these people decided to come to see Mr Whatnot on the day the President of the United States [was assassinated], they are the ones that don't give a stuff. I mean if they really wanted to mourn him, they can stay at home." No silence was held during the performance. It should be noted that given that the actual performance of Mr Whatnot on Friday 22 November began at 7.30pm and the earliest report from the British media (BBC's Radio Newsreel) that Kennedy had been assassinated was also at 7.30pm (news of the shooting was only initially reported just before 7pm), the performance in question was probably the day after the assassination on Saturday 23 November.
  • When Alan Ayckbourn revived Mr Whatnot in 1976 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, several facts were recorded about the production: it had 300 different sound effects, 117 separate cues and on average there was a sound effect used every 22 seconds.
  • Although not directly tied into Mr Whatnot itself, the play was responsible for a significant meeting. When it was suggested Warren Jenkins direct the West End production of Mr Whatnot, Alan Ayckbourn agreed to act in the director's next work The Doctor and the Devils at the Cardiff New, so both men could get to know each other. During the production, Alan met the actor Christopher Godwin for the first time, who would become a very significant part of Alan Ayckbourn's company in Scarborough during the 1970s. He would originate the classic Ayckbourn roles of Leonard in Time And Time Again, Norman in The Norman Conquests, Colin in Absent Friends and Dennis in Just Between Ourselves amongst others. He is one of the most significant actors in the creation of some of Alan Ayckbourn's most renowned plays during that period.
  • Although Samuel French purchased the rights to published Mr Whatnot in 1980, it would take 12 years before the play was actually published. The original intention was for Alan Ayckbourn to produce a sound-tape to go with the published script, but he never got round to producing a new tape and was unable to find the tape used in his 1976 revival. When Samuel French enquired about progress in 1991, Alan responded that he now felt recording technology had reached a stage where it was both sophisticated and accessible enough that his tapes were not required; at which point he suggested Samuel French should just publish the play.
  • In a slightly odd historical footnote, Mr Whatnot was one of several plays named as part of a regional theatre’s ill-fated attempted at play certification. According to a contemporary report in The Stage newspaper, The Castle Theatre, Farnham, in 1969 introduced a certification system similar to film certificates noting how suitable a play was for various audiences. The ratings were P (ideal for party outings); F (all round family entertainment) and A (adult play). Mr Whatnot was awarded a PF classification whilst Waiting For Godot, in the same season, was rated A. Despite hopes this system would spread to other theatres, it did not catch on.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.