His Girl Friday
Adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the Columbia Pictures film
Review by Philip Fisher
For pure, unadulterated enjoyment, there isn't a show in London that is a patch on His Girl Friday. The sexual electricity that sparks between the two leads, Alex Jennings as Walter Burns and Zoe Wanamaker as Hildy Johnson, is almost visible, as the pair give classic performances.
This is the offspring of the classic 1928 play The Front Page and its gender-altered Howard Hawks film adaptation, released in 1940 from which this play takes its name.
The play starts in a court reporters' room within a film set. The design is clever as it replicates a black and white film with everything from furniture to costumes and skyline in monotone. The period is set immediately and director Jack O'Brien and his designer, Bob Crowley, only allow a little colour to bleed in after the main protagonists (or possibly antagonists) appear.
Jennings plays the hard-nosed editor, Burns, who inadequately covers his broken heart at the loss of his star reporter and wife, Miss Wanamaker's Hildy. Jennings even looks like Cary Grant who played the part in the classic film opposite a young Rosalind Russell.
Hildy, a man in the original play, is a tough-as-nails journalist who would kill for a story. She has given up her career to start a new life as Mrs Bruce Baldwin. As soon as we see Burns and Baldwin the contest becomes a one-horse race.
There is a strong resemblance between this twice-married couple and their British counterparts of the same period, Noel Coward's Elyot and Amanda in Private Lives. The gentility may not be there but the bloody-minded passion certainly is. Richard Lintern's vacuous young suitor, Baldwin, is not too far from Amanda's beau, Victor, either.
Guare and his mentors are particularly strong on hilarious one-liners, which flow out thick and fast. The situations may sometimes be ludicrous but somehow the castmake us suspend the disbelief. There are nice comic cameos from the experienced Harry Towb and Margaret Tyzack as the corrupt mayor and Bruce's odious mother; and also Nathan Osgood as the unbelievably precious reporter, Bensinger.
The dog eat dog world of the hard-nosed journos is well portrayed and when Burns suggests that he would sell his mother for a story one can almost believe him. Even Kerry Shale's sweet, little murderer and Nicola Stephenson as his prostitute moll are softies compared to these vultures.
This attitude is summed up in one poignant line "I don't care what Germany's about to do in Poland" The scoop is more important than life or love, or so the couple believes. In fact their love does romantically win in the end so that the audience can go home happy.
This is good old-fashioned fun, the kind of play that you could take your mother or teenagers to see and be pretty sure that all of you would come away smiling. Even better, most of the tickets only cost £10. Well done Mr Hytner, the National has a real hit!