London Calling with Champagne Charlie: Alphabetical Order
What goes around certainly comes around as far as revivals go. London and the theatre scene as a whole is getting a taste of 1970’s style economics (recession, unemployment) and with it a a stream of productions re-visiting that whole decade.
As part of that interest and to coincide with its 50th anniversary, the Hampstead Theatre is reviving UK based Tony award winner Michael Frayn’s first play ‘Alphabetical Order’.
Set in the early part of the decade in the cuttings-library of a provincial newspaper, its comedy stems from the rather desperate attempts of its occupants to classify the endless flow of information. Award winning director Christopher Luscombe was desperate to get the show revived.
Foremost in his mind was to go beyond the fact that this was not just the play that launched Frayn’s career. But something that presents not just a crystal clear depiction of the past as much as it does a picture of the present. I caught up with him prior to that night’s performance after seeing things were ready before the actors hit the stage.
When did you first see the play?
I actually saw it when I was 13 or 14, I can’t exactly remember when at my local theatre in Surrey.
What was the impact of seeing the show?
It was amazing. This was the pre ‘Google’ world so there’s a glow of nostalgia. It was a play about character in specific locations, how they behaved. Frayn had been a local reporter then went onto to work at the Guardian so he knew this world well.
Why revive it now?
Oddly enough it’s turned out to be very topical. With newspapers making huge losses, unemployment rising. In the play itself we too see their world in crisis. There is insecurity everywhere with the characters and from it different things emerge.
You were an actor who became a director how did you get the bug?
Well I can remember getting the bug from as early on as 5 years old. I just knew I had to do this. And I was professional actor for over 17 years. But it was necessity that made me turn to being a director. I was a great fan of Noel Coward and his last play called ‘Star Quality’ had been left idle and unproduced. So I decided to go for it and take it on. I just loved the experience. Award winning Penelope Keith was in it and it was a great success. And without realising there I was – a working director.
There must have been plenty of up’s and downs as an actor. What stick out most from your time on stage?
Well what sticks out most was an epic production of the story of ‘Columbus’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company, we were doing by the American playwright Richard Nelson. It was over 4 hours long. In fact it was so long that one night we had to abandon the 3rd act as everyone in the theatre would miss the last train or bus home. Every night something seemed to go wrong. In one performance it was all planned that we were to sit in a prop that was a replica of a full size cabin on a ship. The Cabin was positioned at the back of the theatre and was manually pulled down so that we passed through the middle of the audience thanks to a winch. Well one night it all broke and this truck or cabin became detached and we just seemed to roll down crashing as we headed for the front of the stalls from the back. Fortunately it turned out ok but the audience was shocked as petrified as this thing with the actors inside was coming crashing towards them. But we had to and did carry on as if nothing had happened. The show must go on!!!
Has this show all been smooth running?
Well we’ve been affected here too. Just a week before previews one of our leads from a cast of 7 Annette had an injury to her foot and had to withdraw. That meant just 3 days before opening we had to find a lead actress, get her in the show and up to speed with the whole play as the lead. Fortunately we found Penelope Beaumont who got everything right and was ready to go just as we opened.
How did you prepare for the play?
I tend to adapt my work method to the play. I just love doing the research. My designer Janet Bird and I had to get the look just right. I haven’t used 70’s music that would make it too ‘comic’. Instead I found the sound of the times were so different. Typewriters, telexes, office chatter. This was the world before the PC. Even milk bottles looked different and as the play is set in a cuttings library I spent the whole time getting cutting with no colour because of course in those days papers were just in dreary black and white.
Do you see a change in the theatre scene to match or reflect the changing times?
Yes I think I do. You have you epic and funny musicals and shows like ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Pricilla’ but at the same time you have the rival of play’s like Alan Bennett’s ‘Enjoy’ doing really well in the West End. When it was first launched over 20 years ago it was considered strange…a play about families being watched by outsiders, their every move recorded for all to see and then committed to a museum for everyone to watch. Well now look what’s happened. Thanks to reality television and museums really are preserving complete houses for us to see how life for the residents really was like. At the time they were ignored but now these works show the writer was correct after all. I have directed ‘Enjoy’ and knew that it would resonate and stand the test of time if performed now; even thought it was not a commercial or critical success when it came out all those years ago.
What about your future plans.
Well I am bringing back the ‘Rocky Horror Show’. I’ve already directed it before but I want to bring it back to Richard O’Brien’s original vision as a piece of theatre and not just an event. It was after all launched at the Royal Court Upstairs. It then went onto to be staged in a cinema and so became like an event or party. I also want to get as my lead, the American actor David Bedella as Richard always wrote the role with an American in mind. I know Tim Curry made it his as an English actor but it was always meant to be done by an American. It’s a very simple show but amazingly profound about the story of two innocents ‘abroad’. I want to get away from the event and back to just telling it as a straight story, which is how it started.
Christopher Luscombe directs at Hampstead for the first time. He recently directed The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare's Globe and his production of Alan Bennett's Enjoy is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre.
Alphabetical Order was first produced at Hampstead Theatre in March 1975. It transferred to the West End and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy.