Even for fans of Michael Frayn, Alphabetical Order is a bit of an unknown quantity. First performed at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1975, it is now being toured in a revival directed by Christopher Luscombe. The action is set in the library of a failing provincial newspaper - drawing on Frayn's own experiences as a junior hack earlier in his career.
The star of the evening has to be the set by Janet Bird. Rich in detail and clutter, it is the perfect evocation of the chaos of an office in disarray. And I think there we hit the nub of the problem with the play - the set is the star: certainly not the writing or the performances.Heading the cast of seven we have the ever-smiling Imogen Stubbs. She has a pleasant manner and exudes a winning form of ditziness but never once did I really feel there was a connection with her character. Lucy (originally played by Billie Whitelaw) needs a younger character actor to really bring out the layers in the writing and here I feel Stubbs comes up short. The rest of the cast work hard to bring their characters to life but always come up against the script.
Alphabetical Order is an early work and it shows. There are just a few hints of the deftness of touch that came to the fore with scripts such as Noises Off and Copenhagen. The characterisation is too slight, the pacing is poor and the balance between character and action is mishandled. Too much of what is important in the lives of the characters takes place offstage and are reported. It is a classic case of 'telling' rather than 'showing'.
There are entertaining moments and events that do cause the audience members to laugh out loud but not enough to justify mounting this revival. It is a period piece that do not seem to have much to say about the original period or have any insight into our current travails. Stock characters in a predictable setting with not enough plot or development - all very disappointing.
- Simon Tavener