Our story begins in a newspaper library containing cuttings of people going to a newspaper library to look at newspaper library cuttings. The library in question is none other than that of The Oxford Times. I’ve never been there — but I was sent a cutting.

Or a photocopy, anyway. It’s an article by Anthony Wood, concerning the 1975 visit to the library by director Michael Rudman and set-designer Alan Tagg, researching their original Hampstead Theatre (Club) production of Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order.

Revived this summer as part of Hampstead’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Frayn’s first full-length play concerns the philosophical and literal chaos that threatens (or does it?) to engulf a regional newspaper library — indeed, the whole paper — until the felicitous (or is it?) arrival of an efficient young assistant librarian.

The revival director is Christopher Luscombe and the designer Janet Bird. To my knowledge they have not visited The Oxford Times, and in fact there was some dispute as to whether the playwright himself ever had. But he thinks he might have, and so does my editor; so I’m going to run with it (the cast-iron journalistic rule, of course, being that you need two sources who more-or-less think something probably happened).

“When I worked for the Manchester Guardian,” says Frayn, “I used to go around the country on assignments. If I needed information for a story I’d use the local newspaper libraries.” A free resource/workspace/kettle, they were apparently very welcoming of travelling hacks.

“It was a rather congenial world. I must have used The Oxford Times library at some point, though I don’t remember it particularly.” Given the chaotic depiction offered in Alphabetical Order, this may be some relief to anyone employed there in the 70s. Though the play is not expressly set in Oxford, Frayn’s experiences led him to stipulate to Rudman — and I quote from Wood’s article — that it “must be set in a provincial newspaper library, not a national one”. (Moreover, there is talk of a vice-chancellor’s wife, and a suspected former fellow of a prestigious college — more of which later) This hypothetical provincial newspaper library has two librarians. Lucy, the cuddly, linen-wearing type, slightly frayed (her and the linen), and prone to filing things, in both senses, on the floor. Frayn is quick to point out that his own experiences tended generally towards the Lucy figure. “Everyone adored her”, he says of the Guardian’s own librarian.

But then there is Lesley: the other type. The psychopathic, humour-void, utopian type. The type you suspect has catalogued her husband’s undergarments. Alphabetical order. O and A and A and O. Alpha and omega. Alles in ordnung. I took it that the play was about how order won’t make you any happier than disorder.

But Frayn rejoins that it’s more about “the interdependence of the two”. He adds: “You can’t have one without the possibility of the other. And when you’ve got one, you want the other. (Classic Frayn. You say “tomato”; he says “a red fruit, indigenous to . . . typically used in . . . often found in paintings by . . .” ) It’s the basis of all political life, too — the shifts from authoritarian to libertarian — and just part of human nature: one tends to oscillate slightly.”

Oscillating throughout the play (and more than slightly) is John, a former academic rumoured — by his colleagues, at least — to have been a fellow of All Souls. Frayn isn’t John, or vice versa; but it’s a close approximation.

“Certainly there are long swathes of dialogue where I’m just spouting Michael Frayn-esque stuff,” says Jonathan Guy Lewis, who plays John. “And not very well, most of the time. (Someone said I reminded them of Boris Johnson. I wasn’t sure how to take that!) But Michael has that donnish nature. And, of course, the journalists we play are very familiar to him.”

To him, but perhaps to few others, these days. As Lewis remarks, “The play is a window on a world long gone.” Indeed, the very concept of a cuttings library seems hopelessly inefficient in the era of Internet search engines and pocket-sized electronic encyclopedias.

Frayn shrugs: “In 1975 one couldn’t really foresee the digital revolution — a time when no one would have to cut and paste.”

In seeming celebration of this anachronistic element, the 2009 programme cover features a reproduction of the original poster, a disordered set of index cards in very 1970s orange and black.

“We made one or two very minor changes to the text; but the play couldn’t possibly be modernised for the digital age.”

What’s true of the play is true of its setting. The Oxford Times cuttings library survives to this day, though — no jokes, please — I am informed that nothing new goes into it.

lAlphabetical Order is at the Playhouse from Monday until next Saturday.