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Hacks for the chop

This pitch-perfect newspaper comedy by Frayn has only improved with age

While it must have been exciting to be at the Hampstead 34 years ago for the original first night of Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order – it definitively announced the arrival of a major playwright –I bet it was even more fun to be at the opening of the long-overdue revival on 16 April.

The play telescopes the philosophical mystery of the impact of human consciousness upon an inchoate universe into a one-set workplace comedy.

Its location, a provincial newspaper’s cuttings library, becomes a perfect metaphor for the Sisyphean but necessary human task of imposing order upon chaos.

It is also an arena of combat between a librarian, compelled to pigeonhole not only news stories into Manila folders but colleagues into relationships, and her nominal boss, who is fundamentally opposed to and incapable of categorising anything. If ever a play bounded the universe within a proscenium arch, it is Alphabetical Order.

Now, however, its allegory is even more firmly fixed by having become a period piece rich with its own connotations. The men wear wide-lapelled jackets and their hair over their ears. Lucy, the librarian who hates her job, wears a long skirt that does not quite meet her frilly blouse. We not only notice these Seventies details now, with the benefaction of hindsight, but we also know what happened next. Within a decade word processors would replace typewriters. Eventually, almost every cuttings library would be closed and replaced by search engines.

In a rewrite that imbues the closing scene with aching portents of the Eighties, Lesley, the recruit intent on bringing order to Lucy’s chaotic library, orders her to a meeting to discuss “possible cutbacks”. Lucy’s anarchic spirit appears crushed as, on her knees, she begins filing once more, this time reciting, letter-perfect, the alphabet.

Historically speaking, the pendulum is about to swing towards not only order, but law and order.

Once you catch its philosophical ambition, Alphabetical Order becomes a profound dialogue on the hopelessness of the human chore of making sense of life.

John, an academic on a path of downward mobility towards second-rate leader writer, calculates that the world contains 225 billion billion billion billion atoms. “Is the government, we wonder, fully aware of the magnitude of the problem it faces?” he asks. Yet, Lesley would say we must create order where we can: “Things do not have any value in themselves. Do they? It is just what we do with them, what use we make of them.” Lucy’s hope that things have around them a “kind of glow that makes sense of everything” just won’t do.

If the grand scheme passes you by, Alphabetical Order still works as a beautifully judged workplace comedy, set in the dying days of a newspaper culture where paginations were so slight that journalists really didn’t have to work too hard.

A cuttings library is a haven, a safe house in which a reporter, as Geoffrey the elderly messenger observes, is allowed to ward off the evil moment he has to make a phone call and discover a fact for himself. The play is also an office romance in which lust and love have been replaced by possessiveness and mild affection.

Lucy starts the play living with John, but by the end comes dangerously near to having paired off with Wally, an older and partially deaf journalist who covers his befuddlement with laboured jokes. In the meantime she has had a liaison (or has she?) with the lugubrious hack Arnold, whose wife is slowly dying in hospital – a development beyond the understanding of the irritating features editor, Nora, who has designs on him. Will Lesley be able to tie these romantic loose ends into a neat bow?

The revival is beautifully cast. Imogen Stubbs, playing frumpy middle age for the first time, is outstanding. There are strong turns, too, from Jonathan Guy Lewis as John, Penelope Beaumont as Nora and Ian Talbot as Geoffrey, the messenger, who is not as nice as he looks (perhaps none of them is). Chloe Newsome as Lesley primly captures the permanent puzzlement of the truly humourless.

As a newspaper man who reveres Frayn’s Fleet Street novel Towards the End of the Morning, I may be biased, but this is a sparkling night that dazzles verbally and visually (the prop change between acts always wins its own round of applause).

There is a sadness to this snapshot of aimless and disordered lives, but, I should also make clear, once it gets going, Christopher Luscombe’s production is extremely funny.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.
Alphabetical Order is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.