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Mr Whatnot (Northampton)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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What on earth is one to make of this early curiosity from the modern master of comedy, Alan Ayckbourn? Now fifty years old, this piece of extended visual gaggery – described by director Cal McCrystal as “this odd little play and its eccentric personages” – is almost impossible to describe, let alone perform.

Predating, and yet clearly foreshadowing, the likes of Monty Python, Mr Bean and even the League of Gentlemen, it’s a real mish-mash of surreal comedy, slapstick physicality and silent movie tribute.

Superficially, the plot (such as it is) follows mute piano tuner Mint – Mr Whatnot – as he pays a visit to Craddock Grange, an outrageous old-fashioned and stereotyped country house dwelt in by the aristocratic Lord Slingsby-Craddock and his one-dimensional family. Mr Whatnot promptly falls for pretty-but-dim daughter Amanda and wreaks havoc among the household as he attempts to win her away from her intended, the lisping toff Cecil.

All this cardboard-cutout tosh merely serves as a backdrop to a succession of sight gags, pratfalls and tableaux which amount to little more than a sequence of sketches involving the same silent protagonist. So we get a mimed piano performance, a tennis match with no ball, an amusing deck-chair skit, a formal dinner party and a night-time dumb show in which everyone tiptoes into everyone else’s bedroom, with ensuing misunderstandings.

If it all sounds rather dated and hammy, then it probably is. But along the way, there’s a whole lot of laughs to be had, especially if you’re a fan of mime and physical comedy. Juanma Rodriguez, in the non-speaking title role, finds silent ways to make your sides ache, while the supporting cast of six camp their way through the daft proceedings with just the right amount of tongue in their cheeks and glint in their eyes.

McCrystal, meanwhile, steers things with a firm directorial hand, and deputy stage manager Vicky Eames leads a team of sadly uncredited technical experts to make the whole thing run with meticulous precision.

It’s certainly an oddity, and one with decidedly surreal overtones. But if you like your comedy visual, off-the-wall and in-yer-face, there’s a feast of fun to be found in this entertaining, crazy offering.




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