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Alphabetical Order
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2009

The Hampstead Theatre celebrates its fiftieth anniversary by reviving one of its early hits, Michael Frayn's amiable and mildly satiric comedy from 1975.

The totally chaotic clippings library of a provincial newspaper is spiritual home to a collection of eccentric employees, from the hopelessly disorganised librarian herself to the reporters who find this mess a comforting retreat from the real world outside.

It all overwhelms the new young assistant on her first day, but I can't be giving away any surprises when I tell you that her energy and compulsion for order are going to change the place and the people, not always for the better.

That's the fun of the play, the discovery that neatness and order - professional and personal - aren't always improvements.

In a farce like this the characters are all almost cartoons, and director Christopher Luscombe has clearly decided to smooth out some of their extremes and guide his actors to more rounded, realistic characterisations.

This is a mixed blessing. It certainly adds to the warmth we feel toward the characters and to our sense of the warm family that is somewhat redefined and disrupted by the newcomer. On the other hand, some of the raw fun of extreme and one-dimensional comic characters is lost.

Chloe Newsome, for example, is not quite as simply the blank innocent at the start or monstrous gorgon at the end that we half-want her to be. Thirty-odd years on, I can still remember how Barbara Ferris's constantly bleated 'Sorry' punctuated the first act. Simply by giving the word a different reading each time, Newsome deepens the character and spoils some of the fun.

Imogen Stubbs does capture all the fun and all the warmth of the den mother librarian, though her performance is complicated by something that is hardly her fault - the perennially youthful Stubbs (What does the portrait in her attic look like?) can't convey the sense of having lived comfortably in this chaos for years or the slight pathos of having let life pass her by in the process. At times she comes across as younger than Newsome.

Jonathan Guy Lewis rightly lets us discover only gradually that his character's verbal tic of repeatedly getting so lost in his own subordinate clauses that he has difficulty finishing a sentence is the manifestation of a total gormlessness beneath, while Gawn Granger perfectly captures the mental absence of a man following distant music only he can hear.

Ian Talbot as the guy who is always cheery simply because he never really knows what's going on, Penelope Beaumont as everyone's saccharine auntie and Michael Garner as the office fantasist all nicely walk the tightrope between recognisable eccentrics and grotesque cartoons.

If the play's one big joke is a bit inevitable, if every step the director and actors take toward realism steals a bit of the comedy, and if it all ends with a whimper rather than a bang, Alphabetical Order is still a delightful couple of hours of froth.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Alphabetical Order - Hampstead 2009