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 The Theatreguide.London Review


His Girl Friday
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn 2003

I have to begin my review with two Ifs. If you have never read or seen the 1928 Hecht-Macarthur comedy The Front Page, and if you have never seen the 1939 film based on it, His Girl Friday, then you will find John Guare's stage amalgam of the two, and the National Theatre's production, a lot of fun.

But those are two very big Ifs. If you know either of the sources, then you are likely to find the current production, for all its virtues, a catalogue of missed opportunities.

The original stage comedy, about a newspaper editor trying to keep his star reporter from quitting in the middle of a big story, is one of the greatest American comedies, and the National Theatre's own 1971 revival remains a high point in the theatre's history. 

When Howard Hawks made what was to be the third film version in 1939, he had the insight that the strongest emotional bond in the play was between the two men, and that he could add layers to that by making the reporter a woman. The result, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, was one of the great screwball comedies of a golden age of film.

Now John Guare has written a stage version of the film, incorporating some of the original play and some material of his own. And let me say right off that he hasn't added much of value, generally slowing things down, softening the satiric bite, and providing a particularly soppy ending.

But that's not all that keeps this version from being as successful as either of its predecessors. Director Jack O'Brien has failed almost completely in capturing either the mock-documentary reality of the original or the high energy of the film. The scene is a prison press room full of reporters awaiting an execution, and yet from the minute the play begins you never really believe these men know each other or have ever been in this room before, and there is certainly no indication of the corrupt but in its own curious way honourable dedication of newsmen.

Alex Jennings is magnetically slimy as the amoral editor, and Zoe Wanamaker attractive and energetic as the reporter. But, except for a few scattered moments in the second act, there's no chemistry between them, and there is no sense that either is a born, almost compulsive newspaperman. (Lest I be accused of sexist language, let me point out that one of the play's nice small touches is the way it repeatedly uses that masculine term for the female Hildy.)

If you remember anything from the film, you remember the rapid-fire dialogue of Grant and Russell. That wasn't just a comic device - it told us that Walter and Hildy were on the same wavelength, that they both could think and talk faster than anyone else and were made for each other. None of that is there in this too-often limp production.

You might also recall a dinner scene, in which they instinctively cut out the third party, Hildy's fiance. Here the scene has none of that subtext. Or the one that showed us Hildy's supreme talent and coldness as a reporter, when she shaped an interview with the condemned man to fit her story. As staged here, Wanamaker's Hildy stumbles on the angle and doesn't even realise what she's got.

These things suggest under-rehearsal or some difficulties in the production period that have left the performers at loose ends. There are other hints of that, notably a set design and some between-acts business that seem to place this whole production on a movie sound stage, a concept that was either dropped halfway through rehearsals or never developed. Zoe Wanamaker is stuck in a dress that she constantly has to fiddle with just to move around the set, and - at least on the second press night - there were far too many missed cues, dropped props and the like for comfort.

And so it may be that this production will improve with time. We certainly have two attractive and talented stars at the centre, and there is some fun to be had in the wisecracks and farcical action. Richard Lintern makes Hildy's hapless fiance a little more interesting than the play wants him to be, and Kerry Shale and Nicola Stephenson can do nothing with the thankless roles of the condemned man and the hooker who befriended him. But the always reliable Margaret Tyzack injects considerable comic energy in her brief scenes as the fiance's mother..

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - His Girl Friday - National 2003