This play is about order and chaos. It isn’t a rip-roaring farce, which some people might think it is because Michael Frayn also wrote Noises Off. But Michael always writes about something more than what he seems to be writing about. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but in a way, Alphabetical Order is more like a Chekhovian piece in that it centres on all these characters grouped together working for a local newspaper in the 1970s and how people pattern out their lives. It’s set in a newspaper reference room, which is initially very chaotic and is then straightened out and rigorously ordered by a new person.
My character, Lucy, is the librarian. Libraries like this have been totally replaced now by Google, so for anyone who’s over a certain age, the whole thing is nostalgic. It seems bonkers now that all reference points had to be found in cuttings from newspapers and magazines, big wodges and clumps of paper filed away in folders under the title “pay” or “nuclear” or whatever it was. It’s phenomenally hard to really catalogue and make sense of this mass of information. My character is terribly disorganised, so there is no order but there is a certain charm in the chaos. Then this other woman arrives and brings order, which is charmless but efficient. Overall, I think the play is saying that there’s something farcical in our need to categorise, catalogue and classify human nature, or life and the universe, and to attempt to impose order on something that is by its very nature chaotic.
The play is very much of its time, so it’s great that Hampstead has put it on as part of this 50th anniversary retrospective – you can legitimately do it without having to apologise for the fact that it is dated.
I’m sure it’s particularly interesting for journalists. Oddly, there are some lines now that have a poignancy (the newspaper in the play is closing and the journalists are all faced with losing their jobs). It seems every day there’s another local newspaper or magazine closing down, and therefore in that way, the story is still very relevant.
I’m not a journalist, but I have been an occasional contributor. I had a column in the Daily Telegraph for a couple of years, I’ve done a lot of travel features and some interviews with French actors (I speak French) and I’ve been writing a lot recently for Reader’s Digest. I’ve never been part of the group in a newspaper office, but I have seen how the offices have changed, at the Telegraph for example. It’s now this weird and sterile place with vast screens everywhere and people sitting in ranks glued to their computers, I mean hundreds of them. I thought, this looks like some futuristic vision of an extraordinarily intense and rather terrifying workplace.
It seems that newspapers have become a lot more rapacious and cynical and a lot more precarious in terms of your disposability as a journalist in this world. In the past, people were pretty assured of a lifetime job once they got their foot in the door, but today uncertainty is a word that probably echoes in every journalist’s mind every day.
Alphabetical Order finishes its London run as part of Hampstead Theatre’s 50th anniversary season this Saturday (16 May 2009) and then tours to Oxford (16-23 May), Malvern (25-30 May), Bath (1-6 June) and Richmond (8-13 June). Frayn’s play premiered at Hampstead in 1975, before transferring to the West End and winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, this production also features Gawn Grainger, Jonathan Guy Lewis, Chloe Newsome and Ian Talbot.