Mr Whatnot: BackgroundMr Whatnot is a play with an interesting history, but is most notable for being the first of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays to be staged in the West End and being the earliest play in the Ayckbourn canon which has been published and which is also available for production.
In 1955, Stephen Joseph opened the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Based on the first floor of the town's public library, this was home to the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company. From the start, Stephen was constantly looking for a permanent home for the company (Studio Theatre Ltd) rather than being constrained by the limitations of working in a hired venue for short repertory seasons.
In 1962, Stephen Joseph found a home for Studio Theatre Ltd at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, which would become the first permanent in-the-round venue in the UK. Alan Ayckbourn, who had joined the Library Theatre in 1957, moved to Stoke and was a key member of the company as actor, writer and director.
Alan's first new play at the Victoria Theatre was the poorly received Christmas V Mastermind for Christmas 1962, but he followed it up with a bona fide hit for the company in November 1963 with Mr Whatnot. The play was written around the company at the time, taking advantage of the close-knit group and the talents off the actor Peter King, who had a notable skill for mime-work. The play centres around a mute piano tuner who causes often surreal havoc within an aristocratic mansion. It was influenced by Alan's great love of the silent film comedians such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and the French film director René Clair.
Mr Whatnot is a significant play for Alan as Mr Whatnot or Mint (although he is only named as such in the programme) is arguably an early prototype for Alan's unintentionally destructive male characters such as Norman in The Norman Conquests and Leonard in Time And Time Again. Although utterly silent, Mint is accompanied by a complex sound plot of more than 300 sound cues - all created for the original production by Alan himself - which turn cake-fights into trench warfare and other surreal events. Alan has always had an intense interest in sound design, frequently creating the sound effects for his own shows, and Mr Whatnot is homage to this particular passion. The use of sound in the play is what makes it, according to the playwright, the first play which is definably Ayckbourn, i.e. a play that could not have been written by anyone else.
Mr Whatnot also marked a significant change of direction in Alan Ayckbourn's writing, according to the playwright's biographer Paul Allen, who believes it was the first play Alan "wrote to show himself off as a director rather than an actor." Notably, it was the first play Alan had written in which he did not also act.
The play opened on 12 November 1963 at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, directed by Alan; this was the first time he would solely direct the world premiere of one of his own plays (in 1962, he had been credited as co-director of the world premiere of Christmas V Mastermind at the same venue with Peter Cheeseman, although he does not actually recall participating in the direction of the play!). With the exception of his next play, Relatively Speaking, and the musical Jeeves, from this point forward he would direct the world premiere of all of his plays. Mr Whatnot proved to be a popular draw for the Victoria Theatre and was a great success; it also caught the eye of the London producer Peter Bridge, who was beginning to make a name for himself in West End theatre circles. Peter optioned the play for London and intended to transfer it relatively intact with the original company. Unfortunately, this would not be the case.
By all accounts, Peter Bridge lost confidence in the play and decided to recast it and bring in a new director. Alan had suggested Clifford Williams, but he was unavailable and Bridge suggested the production turn to Warren Jenkins instead. Having never worked with Jenkins before, Alan agreed to appear in a production of The Doctor and the Devils by Dylan Thomas at the Cardiff New, which was being directed by Jenkins. Peter King, who would be kept in the role of Mint for the London production of Mr Whatnot, joined Alan in the production.
With Jenkins settled as the director and a London venue in the Arts Theatre (close to Leicester Square), Peter Bridge began looking to recast with some notable names. Foremost among these was Ronnie Barker, who was making a name for himself on stage (although he would soon after find huge fame and a life-long career in television) and whilst he was well-cast, much of the other casting was not sympathetic to the play's needs. This mis-guided approach to the play was typified by Bridge bringing in a mime specialist (where none has been used or needed in Stoke) and a sound effects designer (despite having Alan's original tape available to them). A large cluttered set and back projection also filled what had essentially been a bare stage at Stoke, where the mime and sound-effects had filled in the gaps and let the audience use their imagination; which had always been one of the main joys and charms of the original production. Alan could see something very important had been lost and a lot that was unimportant had been added superfluously.
Quite how much had been lost was not evident until the first night reviews came in when the play opened on 6 August 1964 for an advertised three-week run (presumably the closing date of 29 August would have been extended had the production been successful). Mr Whatnot was butchered by the critics and received some of the most vitriolic, often patronising, reviews that Alan has ever received in his career. The most damning was the oft-quoted Bernard Levin review in the Daily Express which described it as "the most stomach-heavingly twee, coy and gigglesome concoction that can have ever been seen in the West End of London." The play was finished before it had even found its feet, closing notices were posted and Mr Whatnot's short excursions into the West End finished on 22 August, a mere 16 days after it opened. Popular opinion has it that the musical Jeeves was Alan's biggest West End flop (and certainly in financial terms it was), but in terms of duration of the run, Mr Whatnot is the pre-eminent flop. Alan's first foray into the West End had been a disaster.
Distraught and battered by the reviews, Alan contacted his agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay for advice, who coincidentally was in a meeting with Alfred Bradley, a senior radio producer at the BBC who was well-known for nurturing new writers. He told Peggy that Alan should apply for a post at the BBC that had just been advertised. Not sure of his commitment to playwriting, Alan applied for the job and got an interview.
In the meantime, Peter Cheeseman, who ran the Victoria Theatre where Mr Whatnot had premiered so successfully, had taken a run at Peter Bridge and let him know that he had "buggered" Alan up and the only way the show could have been saved would have been to let Alan "take it over completely." Offering his support for Alan, Peter blamed the problems entirely on the decisions Peter Bridge and Warren Jenkins had taken with the production; it is difficult to find anything to contradict this opinion.
Alan was quick to move on though and found support from Stephen Joseph who contacted him in October and asked whether he'd write a play for Scarborough for the following summer. Alan agreed and bearing in mind what had happened in London, Stephen advised him to take a crack at a "well-made" play, suggesting that before one breaks theatre rules, they have to know them first. It was a lesson Alan took to heart and his next play would be Relatively Speaking, a play that three years after Mr Whatnot closed in London, would make Alan's name as a playwright. Soon after accepting the commission Alan would begin work for the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer in Leeds, from the security of which he would continue writing a new play every year or so until accepting the position of Artistic Director at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972.
Alan had not lost faith with Mr Whatnot though and in 1968 found himself directing it again as a favour to an amateur company. He was a patron of the Leeds Art Theatre and when a planned production fell through, one of the actors asked Alan as a favour if he would help the company. Alan agreed to help and offered to direct Mr Whatnot, casting the same aspiring young actor as Mint. The actor was Bob Peck, taking early steps in an acclaimed career which would span stage and screen. With the original sound tapes lost, Alan worked with Barrie Davenport to create a new sound plot for the play which for many years became the definitive sound-plot with amateur and professional companies borrowing the tape for productions.
Having been - by this point - one of only two plays neither premiered nor performed in Scarborough (the other being Christmas V Mastermind), Alan intended to produce the play at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, during the 1970 summer season alongside the world premiere of The Story So Far… (later retitled Family Circles). A draft season poster was printed with the play within the season, but the production was pulled less than two weeks before the season began due to the state of the company's finances. Alan had been asked to try and programme a season of five plays at the same budget - if not less - than the previous season's four productions. Unable to do this to the standard he believed was expected, he dropped Mr Whatnot from the schedule and the 1970 season ran with just four productions.
He returned to the play in 1976 when the Library Theatre in Scarborough closed and the company moved to a new home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (although at the time of the move, the venue was initially named the Theatre In The Round At Westwood). Alan decided he would like to open the theatre with something resolutely entertaining and turned to Mr Whatnot; finally giving the play a Scarborough premiere. He cast Malcolm Hebden as Mint with Christopher Godwin as Lord Slingsby Craddock and Heather Stoney as Lady Slingsby-Craddock, the role she had also played in the original production 13 years earlier. The production was well received and a successful launch of the new home for the company. Twenty years later, as the company prepared to move to its current home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the final night saw a performance of Just Between Ourselves. At the climax of the show, after Alan had delivered a final speech, Malcolm Hebden appeared on stage, dressed as Mint, and mimed turning the lights off at the venue, bringing the venue full circle to its opening.
Surprisingly - if only to Alan - the play was in great demand following the original London production and professional and amateur productions were requested and staged, with it proving to be particularly and unexpectedly popular with schools. Such was the interest that a particular enquiry from the headteacher of Headlands School, Bridlington (near Scarborough), led Alan to offer the play in 1980 to the publishers Samuel French, who subsequently bought the rights to it and published an acting edition in 1992. Since then it has continued to be produced in the UK and abroad by professional and amateur companies.
In 2013, the play celebrated its 50th anniversary and to mark this, the Royal & Derngate in Northampton launched a major revival of the show (although it was not, as certain media reports insisted, the first major professional production since 1976. The play has been performed multiple times internationally throughout its life). The venue's Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, who had worked with Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, brought in Cal McCrystal to direct the play; he had received huge acclaim as the physical comedy director for the National Theatre's 2011 success One Man, Two Guvnors. The production was well-received and a fitting tribute to the play on its anniversary.
Mr Whatnot is the earliest play-script in the Ayckbourn canon that has been published and is available to produce. This is a position that is unlikely to ever change.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.