Michael Frayn's 1975 comedy Alphabetical Order returned to its original home the Hampstead Theatre this week (21 April 2009, previews from 16 April) as part of the venue's 50th anniversary celebrations (See News, 11 Nov 2008).

The play proved a major hit for the Hampstead when it first appeared, subsequently transferring to the West End and winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Inspired by Frayn’s early career in journalism, it’s set in a provincial newspaper office where the lives and routines of a group of befuddled journalists are systematically ordered by new girl Leslie.

Christopher Luscombe directs a cast that features Imogen Stubbs, Penelope Beaumont, Michael Garner, Gawn Grainger, Jonathan Guy Lewis, Chloe Newsomem and Ian Talbot, and it continues at the Hampstead to 16 May.

Overnight critics were generally appreciative of the revival, with one glaring exception – the Evening Standard's Nick Curtis, who, awarding one star, labelled the play “dated” and its characters “idiot stereotypes”. However, there was quite the opposite response from many other quarters, including The Times' Dominic Maxwell who called Luscombe's production “masterful” and, like many of his peers, appreciated some good work from the cast (including Penelope Beaumont, stepping in to replace the injured Annette Badland). Many critics particularly enjoyed the nostalgic trip back to the days of cuttings libraries – a world that, as noted by Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, “simply doesn't exist anymore”.


  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Something’s not quite right about Christopher Luscombe’s production. Perhaps it was unsettled by the late change of cast. But the actors don’t seem to inhabit the play in the right way. Talbot’s messenger is more a gleaming Benny Hill than an old reliable. Lesley and Lucy are too physically similar, and their wigs are dreadful. The humour is often forced …  There’s also the nostalgia factor of life in journalism, and a cuttings library, that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Curiously, that sense of impending doom catches something entirely contemporary in journalism today; not only in the imminent semi-collapse of the newsprint trade, but in the evaporation, too, of values of camaraderie and a sense of romantic vocation.”

    Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) - “While Christopher Luscombe's masterful production doesn't stint on the period trappings (bottle-green jackets and pressed brown slacks) it also gives us a timeless struggle between order and chaos ... Frayn studs his script with typically wry, philosophical one-liners that slip easily off his over-analytical characters' tongues. And their goal, at first murky, turns out to be survival itself. No, it's not quite a laugh riot like Noises Off or a head massage like Copenhagen. But after a slow set-up, with a lot of faces, this perfectly performed production turns into something remarkable: an ironic elegy for the days of the amateur that also nods to the need for change.”

    Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - Christopher Luscombe’s production isn’t quite such a dark comic delight as his cracking revival of Alan Bennett’s Enjoy in the West End ... But I loved being reminded of a time when newspaper offices were devoid of computer terminals and information came from yellowing cuttings rather than from Google. And Frayn’s fictional paper’s fate eerily mirrors the current acute anxiety in the newspaper business where long established titles are collapsing with alarming frequency ... Alphabetical Order isn’t quite the lost comic classic I was hoping for, but it’s both entertaining and humane, and in these dark days, as we lurch back to the worst of the Seventies, perhaps that’s enough.”

    Michael Billington in Guardian (four stars) - “All plays are dated, in that they are the product of a particular moment. So it is no barrier to the enjoyment of Michael Frayn's 1975 comedy that the kind of newspaper cuttings library in which it takes place has been superseded by digital archives … For the most part, the play is a witty philosophical comedy about the conflict between apparently contradictory, but ultimately intertwined, human impulses. At first I thought Christopher Luscombe's production lacking in brio. But it cleans up later by allowing the ideas room to breathe.”

    Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (one star) - “It’s not the setting - a newspaper cuttings library - that makes the play seem so dated. Or the idea newspaper employees can be selfish and stupid. It’s the suggestion that a collection of infantile caricatures could be funny … Frayn’s linguistic dexterity and intellectual playfulness is squandered in the mouths of idiot stereotypes … I don’t even think the play has a symbolic dimension. The two-dimensional characters are what they are. Luscombe directs with technical proficiency but can’t give it warmth or more than sporadic life.”

    Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) - “This is a play attractively short on bitterness. Maybe Miss Stubbs' characterisation of Lucy is a little hard to penetrate at times, but she and Miss Newsome's taut Lesley contrast well. Christopher Luscombe's production could make more of the reveal at the start of the second half. Here is the rare occasion which really needs a curtain. Maybe, as an inky-thumbed hack, I'm a sucker for the setting, but Alphabetical Order makes for an amiable, wry and sorrowful evening. Like Lady Nunn, it is hard to resist.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Rhian Owen