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Alphabetical Order

People get what they've always wanted and what they've always wanted, they've never wanted at all.— Geoffrey
Alphabetical Order
Imogen Stubbs as Lucy and Jonathan Guy Lewis as John
(Photo: Simon Annand)
As a part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, Hampstead Theatre revive an early Michael Frayn comedy, Alphabetical Order which was first produced there in 1975 before transferring to the Mayfair Theatre for a West End run. Drawing on his early experience and set in the offices of a provincial newspaper library, which Frayn would have known well as a Fleet Street journalist sent out to the regions for a story, the information retrieval is chaotic and based on the good will and memory of one person, Lucy (Imogen Stubbs). Into this environment comes Lesley (Chloe Newsome) a force for order, organisation and change. Unfortunately along with the organisation comes control and the library users seem to enjoy using it less. Maybe they are resistant to change or maybe they felt at home in the chaos. It all takes on a historical significance when we realize how internet dependent we are for retrieval of this sort. Even in the 1970s my research of newspapers was on microfilm rather than the quaint collection of cuttings in Lucy's library.

One of the journalists is John (Jonathan Guy Lewis) who is trying to trace a speech about selection and education which he thinks was made a few years back by a Labour Cabinet minister. Lucy fails to identify it but Lesley finds the quote. It is by Dr Johnson and John instead of thanking Lesley, says that's no good because he needed it to have been said by the minister!

The characters of Frayn's play are drawn with great skill. There is the vague Arnold (Gawn Grainger) whose first few lines if not the monosyllabic Yes or Thanks are grunts and sighs and this is someone paid to express himself in the written word. John gets himself in convoluted philosophical arguments which the others do not really follow but he seems amused and occupied by his intellectual posturing. Ian Talbot plays Geoffrey, the messenger, the internal postman who has plenty to say and carries gossip from department to department along with the internal mail.

Imogen Stubbs is a very willing and likable Lucy but Chloe Newsome as Ms Efficiency has everything at her fingertips and a knack for summing people up quickly, if not for tact and diplomacy. Penelope Beaumont has taken over the role of ghastly, patronizing and interfering Nora at very short notice after Annette Badlands broke her foot but like all the ensemble cast, her performance is tip top.

The shambolic office set of the first half, which look like a burglar has been rifling through the filing cabinets and left much of the contents on the floor, is transformed during the interval by the super-efficient Lesley. This tidy appearance gets a round of approving applause from the audience until they realize that this organisation comes at the price of deferring to Lesley's every whim. Good natured Lucy snaps at Lesley, "There are some things that happen in the world independent of you." John, who has switched his romantic allegiance from Lucy to Lesley, slowly realizes what he has let himself in for when Lesley starts telling people that he, John, needs a more definite framework to his life.

The riotous final scene has mayhem in the office but in a clever twist, Lesley is needed to salvage the situation which I will not divulge here. Frayn's comedy may be a reminder of a bygone age before the information highway was built and Google means we no longer need a memory, but it is a quiet, witty and charming piece and makes us think about the pros and cons of order and revolt in our lives.

Alphabetical Order
Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Starring: Imogen Stubbs, Chloe Newsome, Gawn Grainger, Jonathan Guy Lewis
With: Ian Talbot, Michael Garner, Penelope Beaumont
Design: Janet Bird
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 16th May 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd April 2009 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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