Penelope Beaumont, Michael Garner, Gawn Grainger, Jonathan Guy Lewis, Chloe Newsome, Imogen Stubbs, Ian Talbot
Hampstead Theatre’s celebration of its 50th anniversary continues with a revival of one of their hits from the past. Michael Frayn’s 1975 comedy Alphabetical Order was his first major success, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy and transferring to the West End, as well as beginning a fruitful relationship between the playwright and the theatre.
Set in a provincial newspaper library, the play portrays a group of likeably eccentric employees, who are as ineffectual in the relationships as in their jobs, faced with the unwelcome prospect of change to their comfortably muddled lives.
The librarian Lucy, popular but incompetent, is hoping that her new assistant Lesley will instil some order into the chaos of newspaper cuttings seemingly selected randomly and put into files where no one can find them.
In fact, Lesley not only takes over the running of the library with intimidating efficiency but also her on-off boyfriend, the indecisive and digressive leader writer John. As the journalist Wally, who may or may not be in love with her, will never leave his family, Lucy takes in alcoholic reporter Arnold after his wife goes into hospital, saving him from the clutches of the widowed features editor Nora. While veteran office messenger Geoffrey tries to rally everyone’s spirits, the paper is in danger of folding.
Though there is definitely now a nostalgic aspect to the play in its depiction of a newspaper environment that no longer exists in this digital age, Frayn’s philosophical comedy is really about the clash between order and freedom. There is an elegiac quality with the feeling of imminent reform in the air, but Frayn’s subtle vision suggests that without change there is stagnation, and that without control there is anarchy: it is a question of getting the balance right.
Director Christopher Luscombe allows the play’s thoughtful humour to breathe, gradually building up a sense of intimacy in the relationships so that you really do feel these people have spent many years working together. Designer Janet Bird has faithfully re-created a 1970s office dcor of computerless desks and hanging files, initially covered in messy bric-a-brac and overflowing paper, but after the interval transformed into a spick and span workplace tagged with informative notices and labels.
The cast create an ensemble atmosphere. Imogen Stubbs plays the delightfully disorganized Lucy with enough warmth to counteract any winsomeness, while Chloe Newsome shows that her nervous nemesis Lesley may be humourless but is not insensitive as she is aware that her efficiency is a ‘compulsion’. Jonathan Guy Lewis gives John a hilariously Boris Johnson-like academic battiness, and Michael Garner’s Wally jokes about everything including his feelings. Gawn Grainger plays the diffidently monosyllabic Arnold, Beaumont is the headmistressy Nora and Ian Talbot the chirpy Geoffrey married to his job though not for much longer.