Adapted by John Guare from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page and the film
The Royal National Theatres His Girl Friday is an adaptation of an adaptation. Accomplished screenwriter John Guare has adapted the 1940 comedy movie classic (which starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell) for the stage. The movie itself was a reworking of Ben Hecht and Charles McArthurs 1929 Broadway hit The Front Page a witty satirical farce of political corruption and unscrupulous newspapermen. Despite its venerable age, the script is acutely apposite in our own world of the omnipresent amoral and often immoral Media.
Guare has succeeded in synthesizing both scripts into a high voltage version, which crackles with all the quick fire wit of both sources. Director Jack OBriens dynamic production is perfectly paced and hugely entertaining, charged with physical and vocal energy. The timing and precision of the large cast is a constant joy as are the twists and turns of the plot which they set up and the razor sharp wit which they deliver.
In this version, Guare has retained much of the dialogue from the original play and its permanent setting: the press room of Chicagos Criminal Courts Building. This is where the press are gathered to report the hanging of Earl Holub, an anarchist who has accidentally shot a policeman. Earl escapes and in the play, the hardboiled editor of the Examiner, Walter Burns, does anything to keep his ace reporter Hildy Johnson on the story even preventing him from leaving Chicago (and the Examiner) to marry his girl friend. In the movie, not only is the action moved on a decade but also Hildy is transformed into Burns ex-wife, who is about to marry mothers boy Bruce Baldwin and leave the paper, therefore creating an added incentive for Burns to keep Hildy in Chicago because he wants her back.
The resulting sexual frisson between Burns and Hildy is at the center of Guares version as in the movie, adding another dimension to the original play and its two main roles. Alex Jennings as Burns and Zoe Wanamaker as Hildy never lose the emotional undertones beneath their verbal sparring. Though sparks fly between them, it is always clear they are magnetically drawn to each other. Alex Jennings delivers a bravura performance as the manipulative Burns hell bent on getting Hildy back and on achieving an exclusive for his paper. His electric delivery of the lines is underpinned by a variety of tone and color that is vocally alluring. Zoe Wanamaker presents the snappy Hildy with emotional honesty, always aware of her insecurity and vulnerability and a sense that she really has been hurt by Burns and is very unsure about returning to him.
They are ably supported by an excellent ensemble. Margaret Tyzacks cameo appearance as Hildys future mother-in-law is a standout: bristling in gray and black furs and brandishing a large handbag, she is the epitome of the aggressive society matron, a lioness who will defend her cub at all costs. As Mollie Malone, Nicola Stephenson gives a scorching emotional performance as she berates the corrupt local officials who want her boy friend executed and the equally reprehensible newspapermen who want to make the most of Earls personal tragedy. The corrupt political duo, David Rosss oily inept sheriff and Harry Towbs rasping mayor, are a delight as is Sam Beazley as the prison chaplain forever searching for Death Row in the cavernous corridors.
The set and costume design and lighting are monochrome to give the effect of a black and white film, though Mark Hendersons lighting subtly becomes more colorful as the action develops. Bob Crowley has designed an authentic film set with models of Chicago skyscrapers, prison walls and yards and even a gallows to scale outside the press room windows. However the film studio trappings especially the productions opening moments, with director, clapper board boy, technicians and extras whizzing around is entirely unnecessary. This is clearly enough a film adaptation without the need to be reminded of the fact on stage.
Nevertheless, His Girl Friday is a cracking production of a cracking good comedy. Indeed this is what the Royal National Theatre does best: the large cast "company" play. It is sad that large cast satirical comedies, filled with wit, invention and heart are so thin on the ground these days.