Review – Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn, Hampstead Theatre

Tuesday 21 April 2009

event_4172Feet were fast becoming a running theme for the Whingers as they staggered to the Hampstead Theatre on Monday evening.

Phil was staggering because he was still recovering from Saturday’s Third Annual West End Whingers party.

Andrew’s gait, meanwhile, was even less gainly than usual having come hot foot cold foot from a rather nasty experience at the podiatrist – something about Andrew being cryogenically frozen, but as usual Phil wasn’t really listening.

Having suffered such adverse reactions to Michael Frayn‘s Afterlife last year the main reason the Whingers had booked to see this revival of his 1975 hit Alphabetical Order was because Annette Badland was in the cast.

But just days before opening poor Ms Badland was forced to pull out having broken her foot apparently falling off a ladder (see the theme developing?) in her garden.

Things weren’t looking good. “I don’t really want to go now,” griped Andrew truculently, as usual thinking of himself rather than the discomfort and loss of earnings that Miss Badland must be suffering.

Poor Penelope Beaumont who stepped into Miss Badland’s shoes as Features Editor Nora at the last minute – what chance did she stand? The Whingers weren’t expecting her to be very good at all for no other reason than she wasn’t Badland. But the moment Beaumont walked on stage their countenances changed. It was Miss Beaumont’s very own Susan Boyle moment except that she isn’t Scottish, doesn’t have big eyebrows and didn’t burst into a song from Les Miserables. But the point is that she was excellent and hilarious and showed no sign at all that she was performing with the benefit of just three days’ rehearsal.

Frayn’s play set in the chaotic cuttings library of a provincial newspaper run by Lucy (Imogen Stubbs). New girl Lesley (Chloe Newsome) has been brought in to assist but her impact is greater than anyone could expect,  transforming more than just the shambolic filing system.

Mister Frayn used to work on the Manchester Guardian and he has also drawn on his experience in his novel, Towards the End of the Morning in which he even uses some of the same lines (“You write like an angel”), a piece of knowledge that Andrew was keen to show off to a bewildered Phil.

Frayn finds the decline of the newspapers’ heydays a rich source of metaphor although there are fewer ideas in the play than anyone who sat through Afterlife might expect to find which is just fine by the Whingers.

What’s strange about watching the play today while regional newspapers are on their last legs is the way they seemed to be on their last legs in 1975 too. Instead of seeming prescient it just seems a bit hollow.

But thankfully there is so much panache to this production that it hardly matters. The entire cast is excellent (special mentions for Stubbs and Newsome though) and there isn’t a weak link to unravel it.

Christopher Luscombe directs deftly. He had recently delighted the Whingers with his production of  Enjoy and he may in fact be their new Warchus, or even take temporary ownership of Grandage‘s crown while he’s wearing it slightly on the wonk over Madame de Sade.

And talk about style: top marks to Janet Bird for her convincingly detailed 70s set; it’s just like the real thing although how would we know this as we are far too young?

Her eye for detail is excellent:  Phil and Andrew both admired the mishmash of mugs, the stains on the fridge, the 70s milk bottle, the tea caddy, the postcards and the ceiling. There’s also a very convincing elevator that really makes you believe that an old lift descends into the squalor.

But (SPOILER) the big, big thrill comes from one of those “oh my god that’s really happening who is going to clear that up and how long is it going to take” moments that makes all the artifice pale into insignificance. The newly ordered newspaper cuttings are strewn around the stage to create the biggest mess seen on a stage since Gone With The Wind.

The programme has “Special thanks to everyone involved in cutting newspaper” and they certainly deserve it. Andrew often sits amongst a pile of old newspapers brandishing scissors and hopes his own peculiar whimsy will one day receive such recognition.

6 Responses to “Review – Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn, Hampstead Theatre”

  1. neil littman Says:

    We went to see Alphabetical Order last Saturday on one of the preview nights and agree that Penelope Beaumont was very good. However the rest of the acting was a bit below par for some reason. Not sure if it was timing or the subject matter. Some interesting celebs in the audience too that evening too but the main thing I wanted to comment about is, this is about the 10th play in a row I have been to where somebody lit a cigarette on stage for whatever reason it seemed necessary. A few nights later, at Dancing at Lughnasa more lighting up. Have the Whingers been keeping a tally?
    Regards,
    Neil

  2. igb Says:

    Frayn takes himself altogether too seriously these days, but for Towards the End of the Morning and The Tin Men he can be forgiven almost everything. Towards… was one of the first novels I can remember reading, aged about eleven or twelve, on a family holiday in the mid seventies. It’s a masterpiece, and more recently I bought myself a first edition, well, just because.

    And yes, I did attempt in my mid teens to read `USA’ by Dos Passos. It is, as Tessa reports, a very large book.

  3. sandown Says:

    “What’s strange about watching the play while regional newspapers are on their last legs is the way they seemed to be on their last legs in 1975 too.”

    True enough, although the formerly-Manchester Guardian, on which this play is based, has managed to gobble up a large number of regional newspapers in the north of England, and even some in the South East. One dreads to think how many stockbrokers would choke on their gin and tonic, if they knew who really owns the Surrey Advertiser ?

    The Guardian Media Group has swollen with the revenue gained from its voluminous public-sector advertising, for community outreach workers and lesbian awareness officers and the like, all paid for out of general taxation.

    The theme of the play is that well-meaning muddle is preferable to cold-hearted efficiency. Just send the bill on to someone else …

  4. JohnnyFox Says:

    Can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. Saw it tonight and couldn’t really fathom why anyone should think it worthy of revival, and more or less said as much to Christopher Luscombe in the after-show discussion.

    Being fairly specific in location and despite the fact it deals in human interaction and lack of direction/determination in our lives, it’s not a patch on Abigail’s Party with which it’s pretty contemporaneous, nor in terms of production does it come anywhere near Luscombe’s moving ‘Enjoy’.

    That may be down to the action and I’m a victim of saw-the-original syndrome and Imogen Stubbs nice as she is doesn’t have the vocal timbre or natural anarchy of Billie Whitelaw, and Chloe Newsome is just too still and scary to give a third dimension to the Barbara Ferris part.

    Good work though from Jonathan Guy Lewis and interesting casting including Ian Talbot, giving up the day job as artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, to play a bit part.

    Of course it’s refreshing to hear some Frayn dialogue from the days when he was actually funny and didn’t take himself too seriously (i.e. before the Copenhagen/Democracy watershed).

    The cast said audience reaction had been surprisingly varied, some nights almost no laughs – rivalling a famous production at the Watermill Newbury where Frayn had told them not a single line attracted a laugh and encouraged him to re-assess Alphabetical Order as a ‘play’ rather than a ‘comedy’.

    Luscombe’s next project is to be a revival of his production of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Hopefully without Christopher Biggins who ‘graced’ its last outing in Blackpool. You read it here first.


  5. i’m with you, johnnyfox, not worth reviving and a waste of a good cast

  6. Chris Says:

    Saw it last night in Oxford and it came across as quietly thought-provoking and pleasantly entertaining. We really enjoyed that scene of liberation when all the cuttings go flying only to realise that the awful job isn’t necessarily over and it’s back to reality. Good cast, great set. Hornsea biscuit barrel, very nice.


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