The underground world of the fleet-street archive – or ‘library’ as they call it in the business – has long been extinct, pushed aside by the files and folders, cutting and pasting, of modern day interactive interfacing. First premièred in 1975, Alphabetical Order by ex-Guardian and Observer journalist Michael Frayn offers us a touch of nostalgia with a glimpse into the bygone era of snipping and filing.
Frayn says that the library depicted is a compendium of the various other libraries he got to know during his time in the journalistic world, and the excellent stage design captures the chaos of such an environment. A maze of filing cabinets, cardboard boxes, upturned chairs, and scattered pieces of paper, desks chairs and coat hooks fills the entire space so that over the course of the two acts making up the play, you see characters run off to find corporal punishment quotes or council bi-election results, not hearing from them for large amounts of time yet still aware of their buried presence amongst clippings and containers.
The characters on stage mirror in their assorted zaniness the haphazardness of the visual setup. Lucy, played by established stage and television actress Imogen Stubbs, is an excellent and suitably dotty librarian, whose flirtatiousness and vulnerability are juggled well. The variety in character types is appropriately wide – like a newspaper with its news, culture, comment and sports sections – and characters such as the Oxford graduate commitment-phobic John (“All Saint’s College, or sum’in”) and the adorably enigmatic Arnold are brilliant to watch.
With such strong and diverse characters, the temptation to descend into caricature is ever present. And it is to the credit of the writing and the cast that this is avoided. Nestled in the comedy are poignant moments, centred on the nature of perception and performance. And through the visual spectacle of many characters on stage at one time, we are always aware of the different things going on. So, while Wally and Nora joke about the latter’s overbearing crush on “poor old Arnold”, Lucy in the corner reads out the figures of sexual assaults and murder victims. Life goes on as it has to in the office, and gradually we see the onset of cracks in the characters, cracks in the smiles as people become more and more disillusioned with this mole-like existence.
It is a shame that after the quick witted visual feast that is the opening, the play slows down somewhat in the second act; though it is true that the huge surprise waiting for you after the interval, which earned a round of applause from last night’s audience, certainly leaves a lasting impact. The humour can be hit and miss, sometimes relying rather too much on tired and clichéd jokes about pubs and marriage and other such ‘nice’ things. Yet Frayn admits himself to having written parodies of successful plays of his day, constantly mocking the theatre and its conventions, so it is hard to know whether such flatness in Alphabetical Order is disappointing writing or conceals an artistic agenda.
four stars out of five
Alphabetical Order is on at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 23rd May.