Mr Whatnot: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Mr Whatnot (Leeds Civic Theatre 1968 production programme note)
It was in 1963 whilst acting with the newly formed Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, that I first dreamed up the idea of writing a silent film, for the stage. That is, a play that depended upon lengthy visual techniques with the minimum emphasis on dialogue which actors, as opposed to trained mime artists, could perform.
Mr Whatnot was the result.
It has no message - no claims to anything deep or mysterious. The people in it really do exist. Just buy a copy of the Tatler and you'll see where I pinched what dialogue there is. They're narrow, stuffy, unimaginative, boring and I'm very fond of them.
I hope you enjoy the exploits of Mr Whatnot who blunders into their world. After all, that was why it was written purely for laughter.
Mr Whatnot (Castle Theatre, Farnham, 1969 production programme note)
I have been asked to say something about myself and the play. I must say I’m always envious of people with biographies that tell how they were failed vacuum cleaner sales-men who wrote their first plays on the back of the firm’s invoice sheets, were sacked instantly and became an overnight West End success.
Typically, like anyone who’s spent their entire working life in the theatre, nothing as dramatic as this ever happened to me. I did once polish the late Sir Donald Wolfit’s furniture, ruin a scene change for Sir Laurence and, something I much preferred, help Mai Zetterling, nightly, into the lowest cut evening dress l’ve ever had the good fortune to jam the zip on. I set the dressing room lights ablaze, over-zealously broke the leading man’s finger and tangled the strings of the entire cast of eighty for a marionette show. But I suppose these sort of things have happened to everyone in one way or another. There’s a subtle difference between being averagely unsuccessful and a good positive failure.
l’ve written nine full length plays to date (Mr Whatnot was my sixth) and l’ve acted in four of them, to the dismay of the rest of the cast. There’s nothing more disconcerting than having an author rewriting on stage during a performance. l’m now a respectable member of the BBC producing mostly new radio plays in Leeds.
I tried jotting down a few informative remarks that might serve as a background to this production, explaining when and how and possibly why, but the details seem to have escaped me. I do remember I didn’t have any money and that might explain why. I was at Stoke-on-Trent’s Victoria Theatre sharing the same cheese roll as this theatre’s illustrious director (who didn’t have any money either).
In fact, we were a whole gang of rather shabby characters, most of whom, when this was produced, had been working together for about eighteen months - a rather long period for any company outside the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company. Being, as it were, company playwright, the time seemed ripe to create a vehicle which might best express the personality of the group. We’d already nearly massacred a couple of shows trying to project some sort of group image and it seemed a far better plan to work on something specially constructed to foster this, rather than trying to build our hatter’s castle on foundations meant for sterner buildings.
Thus the play, more or less, sprang out of things and ideas we’d already been exploring, purely intended for fun and to reduce the theatre sound man to nervous hysteria. l’ve drawn on a lot of the things l’ve enjoyed - silent film comedies, the films of René Clair and one fleeting glimpse of Commedia dell’Arte. The play’s non-speaking hero is, of course, totally traditional and I swear the Slingsby-Craddock family aren’t all that exaggerated.
Following a fair success at Stoke, the play received an ornate, rather glittery production in the West End and was universally hated by every newspaper except The Scotsman. Ironically, though, people who saw the ill-fated three week run (they were so select, I know most of them by name) have at one time or another slapped me on the back and asked when it was being done again. I suspect they mellowed to it slightly on account of the free seats they received, besides of course the dubious kick they received from watching an already sinking ship rattling down the slipway.
In the case of this production, the prospects seem altogether brighter. Particularly with the original, if rather youthful, Tweedy Lady in charge of the production.
Mr Whatnot (Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round 1976 production programme note)
Mr Whatnot was first produced in Stoke-on-Trent at the Victoria Theatre in 1963. We, the original Vic company, had been working there together for over a year since the theatre first opened. It was written to exploit the team-work and playing style that grows from such a close-knit group. Before Stoke many of us had been doing our regular Scarborough summer season and in moving en-bloc, equipment and personnel, as we did it seemed for a time that the Library in Vernon Road had seen the last of the professional company that Stephen Joseph had started in 1955. It was re-started though and several of that original Victoria company have subsequently returned. Of late, there has been a growing feeling of kinship between the two theatres and hopefully, now we are here at Westwood in a home we can more or less call our own, the feeling will strengthen. Stoke did, after all, grow out of Scarborough to become the first permanent Theatre in the Round repertory company in the country.
It seems fitting that this, the only play of mine not written or seen before in Scarborough, should open our own theatre. First, it serves to salute our fellow company in the Midlands. Second, it is intended as a totally trivial, non-meaningful, frivolous entertainment - which seems a very suitable way to celebrate a christening. I know Stephen Joseph would have approved. He once said that in order to avoid artistic stagnation every new theatre that was built should be programmed to self-destruct in seven years. Theatre in the Round at Westwood is programmed to destruct in three, when our lease expires. That may be carrying this maxim to the extreme but, nonetheless, we promise to try, with your help, to make the very most of our time here.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.