It is not hard to understand newspaper journalists' fondness for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1928 comedy The Front Page. They (we) might be portrayed as callous, wise-cracking hacks even on an all-night shift in the Chicago city jail where a man is due to be hanged the next morning ( and complaining only that the drop is two hours too late for the city edition), but there is a gritty glory at the heart of this heartlessness.
One moment at the end of the first act of Douglas Wager's Chichester production neatly symbolises this lionisation. When protagonist Hildy Johnson, who has ostensibly popped in to say farewell to his compadres before catching a train to a new life (New York, a job in advertising, marriage) finds himself at the centre of a jailbreak scoop, he ditches his straw boater for the battered trilby which seems to go with the job. It's like a Western hero buckling on his gunbelt.
This is a version of journos familiar to us from the fast-talking movies of the 1930s, not least the various film adaptations of this play itself (most famously Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, which changed Hildy's sex): they are inky Philip Marlowes, and attached more to the sensation of The Story than to scruples or accuracy. Of course, Hecht and MacArthur were newspapermen themselves, and their Chicago is only thinly fictionalised, with a mayor and sheriff up for imminent re-election and ready to go to any lengths to see cracked killer Earl Williams put to death because it will play well with "the coloured vote" – plus ça change – and mobsters appointed as papers' "circulation managers". As with the original non-musical play of Chicago, the piece embodies a truly corrosive cynicism and yet succeeds in playing it for laughs.
Adrian Lukis gives Hildy, jaded as he is, a puppyish bounce: happy though he appears to be giving all this up, it's clear that he is only truly alive when on a story. As his editor Walter Burns, Michael Pennington bellows, glowers, bullies and lies his way around like a Chicagoan Robert Maxwell whilst still exuding a bearish appeal: the real love story here is not between Hildy and his long-suffering Peggy, but between Hildy and Burns, together between the sheets of newsprint.
The play and production are full of great supporting-role cartoons: the effete poetaster journalist Bensinger (Frank Lazarus), Woodenshoes the cop who will never quite better himself (Malcolm Rennie), the sheriff who is the epitome of dumb comedy sidekick (Richard Cordery) and Hildy's innocent yet formidable mother-in-law-to-be (Ellen Sheean), to name but a few. Wager and his cast play the cynicism and the farce, the action and the amorality to the full, and the play sustains it all in a fizzing seltzer of a mixture that is still enjoyable and biting three-quarters of a century on.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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