Thursday 30 April 2009

Warm compulsion

Alphabetical Order, Hampstead Theatre, London

There is a lot of warmth and friendliness surrounding and charging the revival of Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order at the Hampstead Theatre. First of all, there is Frayn’s long-standing association with the theatre, not only as a playwright, but also because he was part of the board for 25 years - something which he refers to in the programme notes as ‘an act of devotion’, given he dislikes committees – and as such oversaw the transformation of the theatre’s premises from (supposedly temporary) prefabricated building, to the splendid wood-and-glass, state-of-the-art venue it is today. Secondly, Alphabetical Order itself was originally produced at the Hampstead Theatre in 1975, and it was Frayn’s first real theatrical success, transferring to the West End and winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy in that same year.

It is a play, Frayn declared, about which ‘I have very warm feelings [...], partly [...] because it got itself written without too much agony’.  And there is, as well, the fact that Frayn spent many years working as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian, an experience he recalls with fondness - and Alphabetical Order is set entirely in the library of a regional newspaper.

Warmth is also the most obvious characteristic of one of the central characters, librarian Lucy (a thoroughly lovely Imogen Stubbs), who tries to do her best with the messy abundance of paper-cuts, randomly-named folders and badly-stacked reference volumes that constitute the information deposit of a pre-Google world. In a final attempt to bring some order to the library, Lucy hires young Lesley (Chloe Newsome) to help her out; and Lesley, true to her mission, will transform the place into a fully organised and Post-it-ed, almost militarised environment.

The carousel of people who move in and out of the library, disrupting poor Lucy’s work with their constant demands for attention, is where the comic potential of the piece mostly lies: John (Jonathan Guy Lewis), the logorrhoic, young Oxbridge guy who seems to be there mainly for distraction, is the perfect opposite of the older, enigmatic, intolerant Arnold (Gawn Grainger), who, if and when he speaks, does so only through understatement and cynicism. Geoffrey (Ian Talbot) is the jolly fellow who tries to cheer everybody up when he brings in the papers for the cuttings. Wally (Michael Garner) is the ever-flirting, ever-joking man who will not admit he is slightly deaf. And then there is Nora, the invasive, gossipy widow, who baby-talks to everybody and who after a few minutes is intolerable even to the audience, let alone to Arnold, whose heart she is trying to win over - Nora should have been played by Annette Badland but instead, because of a foot injury, she is brilliantly played by Penelope Beaumont, irresistible when she declares, ‘Don’t forget I brought up a husband and two children’.

Frayn’s talent lies in making all these idiosyncratic and occasionally annoying characters seem entirely lovable: as much as we might find their chaotic way of imposing on Lucy frustrating, as much as their individual peccadillos and weaknesses are exposed, we still really like them - not because they’re funny, but because they are very human. Lucy is at the centre of their world, as a friend, a lover, a motherly figure and yet someone whom they all delude themselves they protect and care for, each one of them silently disapproving of the others’ selfishness and blind to their own. It would have been easy to use stern and humourless Lesley as the focus of satire, the grey element, but instead Frayn turns our opinion of her around with just one sentence: ‘You’ve got an instinct for order,’ Lucy tells her; ‘It’s a compulsion,’ Lesley replies casually, and we are all in love with her at once. Lesley is motivated by her desire to make things straight in all possible ways, but she also cares deeply about the outcome of her efforts, and she is the only one, when the failure whose expectation was underlying the whole evening finally happens, to fight not to give the paper up. She is a typical example of the natural born leader who is not terribly good with people - Newsome gives a touching interpretation of her blind belief in how good organisation might make everybody’s life simply much better.

Janet Bird’s design and Yvonne Milnes’ costumes excellently evoke not only the 1970s, but also the specific environment of a 1970s provincial library - the ever-so-sickening colours of the walls and floor, the cage-lift (strikingly similar to those of Senate House Library in London), the tea-cups on a metal tray, the laminated desks. This is a world without the internet, where people buy their shoes in Woolworths - and it almost seems hard to say which of the two things dates the play the most. Everything is, particularly for a foreigner, delightfully English, and the care that has been put into every detail (with a special mention for the people who had the task of cutting newspapers) might or might not be a result of Frayn’s association with Hampstead Theatre, but, whichever the case, makes for an admirable production, even more so thanks to the generally remarkable acting. By the end of the night, we feel drawn towards these characters and this world, not because we pity them, or because we find them quaint, but because we sympathise with each one of them, regardless of how different they and their attitudes are; some of the warmth has definitely been passed on.

Till 16 May 2009


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