New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Journalism has made some tremendous advancements, particularly technological ones, over the past 35 years. Trainee reporters trying to establish themselves nowadays have computers, mobile phones, voice recorders and even video cameras as their newsgathering tools and researching a topic presents no problems for the Google generation.
It's a far cry from the world of Alphabetical Order in which a journalist's equipment comprised a typewriter, notebook and pencil. While it's a setting many young people today might not recognise, it was an environment that Michael Frayn knew well from his years as a reporter and columnist on The Manchester Guardian and the Observer.
In those days before the advent of 24-hour rolling news channels and instant news updates courtesy of the internet, reporters usually found the necessary background material in a paper's cuttings library. That was a fusty, dusty room featuring thousands of clippings which had turned a particular stage of brown depending on age and how much tea or coffee had been spilt on them.
Alphabetical Order, which was Frayn's first major success, draws from the various newspaper libraries he got to know during his journalistic career.
The play works because it features seven well-drawn characters whose lives are a bigger mess than the system used initially to classify the cuttings; it weighs up whether discipline is better than freedom; and it's funny.
The New Vic is presenting Alphabetical Order in a mini-rep season alongside one of Frayn's later and completely different works Copenhagen.
Alphabetical Order is directed by former artistic director Gwenda Hughes and designed by Patrick Connellan who has more than 20 New Vic productions under his belt. Their experience handling the complexities of the theatre-in-the-round means that hardly anything is out of order.
The play begins with Lesley, a new recruit on a local daily newspaper, arriving for her first day in the cuttings library to find that it's totally disorganised, with files everywhere, two buckets on the floor to catch rain drops and a chair with three legs balanced precariously by the side of a desk.
After the interval Lesley's dotty colleague Lucy is nominally still in charge but Lesley's got the library in pristine condition, with everything in its place. The old hacks grudgingly accept that her way is better.
The two women at the heart of the play both give outstanding performances.
Isobel Middleton shines as Lucy, the eccentric, loveable librarian who gives her heart so readily that others take advantage of her.
Laura Doddington transforms herself from a gullible, naive novice in the first half into a go-ahead, respected leader who wants her relationships to be as well ordered as her filing system.
There's also an enjoyable portrayal by Andrew Pollard of John, the intellectual yet gloomy columnist whose love affairs are more mixed up than his memory for quotations.
The only character I find a problem with is the messenger Geoffrey who's only a couple of years off retirement - but that's because of Frayn's depiction rather than David Bowen's spirited portrayal. Geoffrey is a bit of a busybody and never seems to do any work; although employees stayed in the same job for many years, it's not a person I recognise from my time on newspapers.
Three actors who have major roles in Copenhagen have cameo roles in Alphabetical Order, with John O'Mahony excellent as miserable yet mysterious Arnold, Jamie Hinde exaggeratedly flamboyant as Wally and Deborah Maclaren sometimes awkwardly trying to restore reason as features editor Nora.
While Copenhagen might not be to everyone's taste, Alphabetical Order appeals to a much wider group of theatregoers. This New Vic production is of the highest order.
"Alphabetical Order" runs until June 12th
Reviewer: Steve Orme