Mr Whatnot (1969)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for a production of Mr Whatnot at the Castle Theatre, Farnham, in 1969.

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.*

*The production was directed by Caroline Smith who played the role of Tweedy Lady in the world premiere production at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1963.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.