When director Cal McCrystal agreed to take on this production of Mr Whatnot on The Royal stage in Northampton, he wondered “what traps lay hidden within its pages.”
He may well have feared. Alan Ayckbourn said the reviews of performances in the West End in 1963 sent him to bed for three days and he vowed never to write another play.
In the programme notes, McCrystal noted that Tuesday’s performance was the first professional one since 1976. The Royal audience, however, left thrilled, but puzzled at how such an enjoyable play could generate so much fuss.
McCrystal has shaped it in ways Ayckbourn probably never dreamed of, making an imaginary set, coupled with mimes and sound effects, a key part of the production.
The plot is completely incidental. The Mr Whatnot of the title, Mint (Juanma Rodriguez) is summoned to an Edwardian country house, inhabited by the most upper-class characters, to tune a piano and soon falls in love with the daughter of the lord of the manor.
But it is the hilariously preposterous accents of Lord Slingsby-Craddock and the wettest of fops, Cecil, suitor to his daughter – sounding like a human Daffy Duck – who help make the play. And silent Mr Bean-like Mint (Juanma Rodriguez), who squeezes every bit of comedy out of his small frame and onto the stage, kept the audience doubled over.
McCrystal always keeps you guessing, with lurches into the surreal of World War One battlefields in the middle of an outdoor lunch or opera singers bursting out of the gods. At its heart, there is always the adept physical comedy of a terrifically skilled cast.
McCrystal said: “Ayckbourn says he knows many real-life versions of these characters and is fond of them.” As now do many more of us.