Alan Ayckbourn’s first foray into the West End resulted in a bit of a mauling from the major drama critics of the day.
Fast forward an astonishing 50 years and that debut comedy, Mr Whatnot, is a smash hit thanks to the vision of its new director, Cal McCrystal.
Ayckbourn was at the Royal & Derngate for the show’s press night and he laughed along with the rest of the audience at one of the daftest and most inventive stories ever to come to the stage. How could the critics of the ‘60s get it so wrong?
Afficionados will know McCrystal’s work with Spymonkey. They are an outrageous comedy troupe that visit the Northants venue once a year and leave with its audiences needing abdominal surgery from too much laughter. He’s the go-to man if you want your comedy silly and eye-wateringly hysterical.
There has been comment in the national press this time around that the story is a museum piece. I disagree. Its strength is in keeping with its 1960s setting. I loved the absurdity of it all. It’s a visual delight of physical comedy.
Mr Whatnot is a “piana tuna chappie” who is told to attend a country pile that’s occupied by a country squire type, his rampant and sexually frustrated wife, a blonde dolly bird of a daughter who is all eye-lashes and mini-skirts – and a blind butler.
Also visiting is the girl’s dim and rather wet boyfriend called Cecil and a frighteningly buxom, tweedy, chum of the aristos who spends a lot of time hoisting up her amble breasts and talking in asides to the audience.
The thing is Juanma Rodriguez’s performance is almost entirely mute. He comes across as a Mr Bean character whose eyebrows and grimaces tell the whole story of how he ingratiates himself into the bosom of the family (avoiding the bosom of the tweedy woman and the hands of The Lady) in order to seduce the lovely but vacuous Amanda.
His wooing isn’t without its pitfalls - which makes for one lunatic scene after another.
One of the cleverest parts of the production is its use of sound effects to back Mr Whatnot’s silent actions. The choreography is amazingly accurate and I shudder to think what would happen if the recording developed a hitch or delay one night.
We have him going through the motions of making tea, riding his motor bike, playing tennis and more with precision timing from the sound department.
There were times when the whole story played like an extended scene from The Two Ronnies with Corbett in drag as the Tweedy woman and Barker in his familiar guise as a ruddy-faced squire.
Scenes where Whatnot attempts to snaffle a cucumber sandwich, when he’s under the dining table, and the butler expertly serves up wine and soup are pure gems.
Rodriguez steals the show with his rubber-faced expressions. Who needs dialogue?
Mr Whatnot runs until April 6. For tickets call the box office 01604 624811 or go online www.royalandderngate.co.uk