Michael Frayn’s 1975 comedy Alphabetical Order is set in the cuttings library of a provincial newspaper where disorder reigns. A new girl arrives to tidy things up, but things fall apart anyway until, in a storm of fluttering cuttings and total chaos, a bolt from the blue provides a reality check.
The story of the newspaper is a metaphor of human conduct: the central character, the bohemian librarian Lucy, breezily played by Imogen Stubbs, is assailed by requests – for quotations as well as domestic favours. She’s coming to a crisis point in her relationship with the chaotic leader writer John (Jonathan Guy Lewis) and tolerates the semi-adulterous backchat of newshound Wally (Michael Garner).
Her new assistant, Lesley (Chloe Newsome), is cheerily inducted in the ways of the office by the ancient messenger Geoffrey (Ian Talbot) and a fussing features editor, Nora (Penelope Beaumont, replacing the injured Annette Badland at short notice just before the first preview). Old-style columnist Arnold – played with blank indifference by Gawn Grainger – potters about, drifting into a casually dependent arrangement with Lucy while his wife is in hospital.
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.
Janet Bird’s design of turquoise filing cabinets is a joyful evocation of lost times, with its tea and coffee tray serving as a magnet for passing layabouts, its creaky lift and tumult of box files and buff folders. After the interval: pristine cleanliness. But that doesn’t solve anything, and people’s lives resist the rule of the card index and the imposition of alphabetical order.
It’s a beautifully constructed play, Frayn’s first of note after his distinguished early career as a columnist on the Guardian and the Observer (unrelated in those days), but already replete with good jokes and an acutely developed ability to embody philosophical arguments in dramatic situations.
There’s also the nostalgia factor of life in journalism, and a cuttings library, that simply doesn’t exist any more. 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.
- Michael Coveney
Alphabetical Order continues at Hampstead Theatre until 16 May 2009 and then tours to Oxford, Malvern, Bath and Richmond, where it concludes on 13 June.