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His Girl Friday
by Lizzie Loveridge

You've got the old fashioned idea that divorces are something that last for ever.
--- Walter Burns
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 play, The Front Page about newspaper reporters in Chicago is a modern classic. It was last produced at the National Theatre in 1971 directed by Michael Blakemore and there have been more recent productions under Sam Mendes at the Donmar, and only last year at Chichester. It is about a ruthless editor Walter Burns trying to hang on to his star journalist, Hildy Johnson who is leaving the paper to get married. His Girl Friday was a 1940 film with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a re-write of The Front Page by John Guare, where the character of Hildy Johnson was switched to that of a woman, Walter Burns' ex-wife, so that Burns' interest in Hildy is as much romantic as professional. Now John Guare has taken his 1940 screenplay for His Girl Friday and turned it into a play which is being staged as a part of Nicholas Hytner's Travelex £10 season at the Olivier.

Although the same elements of the story are there as in The Front Page, the romantic element takes some of the edge off Hecht and MacAlexander's study of newspaper journalism with a glance at the corruption of politicians. Guare has set the play in 1939 as Europe is poised on the verge of war but this is less important to the Chicago reporters than the escape of Earl Holub, the man accused of murdering a black policeman on the night before he is due to be hanged. The evening becomes more quick fire comedy, brilliant repartee between its stars, Zoë Wanamaker as Hildy Johnson and Alex Jennings as her editor and ex, Walter Burns than serious comment on the methods of ruthless reporters and the nature of story gathering press.

American director Jack O'Brien guests at the National for this production. With the only colour on the set the pale faces of the cast, the play is set as a play within a black and white film, or at least a film set. Everything is shown in monochrome. The film set is a beautifully detailed reporters' room attached to a Chicago courthouse and jail with its pedestal telephones and roll top desk. The men in hats and suits with loud ties play cards to pass the time in moments of calm before the frantic reaction to a breaking news story.

Zoe Wanamaker as Hildy is the kind of girl who can beat the men at poker and at ferreting out a story. With her deep husky voice, she has printers' ink running through her veins, is as tough as it gets and patently unsuited to be marrying mother's boy Bruce Baldwin (Richard Lintern) with whom she plans to move to Albany, New York State. Costume have perched a small hat on top of her piled up hair as much cheekiness as fashion statement. Wannamaker is excellent with great comic timing and cute too. Alex Jennings is perhaps not as forceful as my idea of Walter Burns but his tall lanky presence left me in no doubt from the start what the romantic conclusion would be. Hildy compares their relationship to that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. "She gave him sex and he gave her class". Margaret Tyzack threatens to steal the show as Mrs Baldwin, the mother in law to be from hell, as does Sam Beazley as the befuddled, aged priest who is looking for Death Row.

There is plenty to laugh at, mostly one liners, but I was left feeling dissatisfied at the farcical elements and wanting more serious comment about journalism. Maybe I need to see The Front Page?

His Girl Friday
Adapted by John Guare from The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Directed by Jack O'Brien

Starring: Alex Jennings and Zoë Wanamaker
With: Helen Anderson-Lee, David Baron, Sam Beazley, Paul Benzing, Paul Birchard, Judith Coke, Dermot Crowley, Tim Donoghue, Kieran Flynn, Demetri Goritsas, Mike Grady, Stephen Greif, Paul Grunert, Tony Haygarth, Richard Hollis, Richard Lintern, Penelope McGhie, Breffni McKenna, Nathan Osgood, David Ross, Christopher Ryan, Kerry Shale, Nicola Stephenson, Russell Tovey, Harry Towb, Margaret Tyzack, Andrew Westfield.
Designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Sound: Colin Pink
Music: Neil McArthur and Jonathan Cooper
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 22nd November 2003 but in rep with Henry V, Edmond and Tales From the Vienna Woods
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th June 2003 Performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, Upper Ground London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo)

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