Everybody loves Lucy in Hampstead theatre’s revival of Michael Frayn’s comedy Alphabetical Order. First performed at the theatre in 1975 and playing now as part of the theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, Imogen Stubbs stars in this chaotic classic.
Alphabetical Order is set in the basement of a newspaper office, where Stubbs plays Lucy, the universally adored librarian who makes up for her impressive inability to file with her quick wit and genuine, sympathetic ear. Amongst her scattered folders and loose paper clippings lies the true heart of the paper. Permanent features in amongst the filing cabinets are John (Jonathan Guy Lewis) the wannabe playboy hack, constantly debating semantics and portraying a constant level of false pessimism to keep his reputation in place, Wally (Michael Garner) the middle-aged married man, indulging in fantasies of running away with the exuberant Lucy, Geoffrey (Ian Talbot) the near-retirement postman, Arnold (Gawn Grainger) the virtually mute, but distinguished writer and the mothering features editor Nora (Penelope Beaumont) who has not yet managed to shake off her 1950s housewife instincts.
New girl Lesley (Chloe Newsome) arrives to assist the eccentric Lucy and bring order and in-trays to the disorganised library. In direct contrast to Lucy’s clashing prints and moth-eaten fur coat bought on a whim, Lesley is all beige clean lines, with shiny straight hair and a look of sheer anxiety when faced with a drawer not properly shut.
Six months later, the library has been revolutionised. Gone are the secret cigarettes in amongst the maze of filing cabinets and group hunts for missing keys, in favour of no smoking signs and clear, cold surfaces. But gone also is any sense of fun and community, with a feeling of repression and unrest bubbling dangerously beneath the surface, just waiting for a catalyst to unleash it.
Alphabetical Order may be over 30 years old, but the themes and comedy have undoubtedly stood the test of time. The heart of the play lies within the characters’ (often incestuous) relationships and the vast contrast between the OCD Lesley with no sense of humour or warmth and the free-spirited, childish Lucy, both of whom are equally annoying in their extremes. The only common link between the two is indecisive John who is torn between the excitement and spontaneity of Lucy and the security of Lesley who makes all his decisions for him.
The play is brought to life by Christopher Luscombe’s set that begins a chaotic, mess of an office, transforms into Lesley’s sanitised and neurotically organised vision, before inevitably coming full circle in an evocative final scene where liberation takes the form of disorder once more.