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The Front Page

Daily Telegraph, 23rd May 2002, Charles Spencer

Have I got noose for you

Get me rewrite. Right, now take this down. The Chichester Festival Theatre has a hit on its hands. That's right, the old newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

Yeah, I know it’s more than 70 years old, but it’s still far too fast and savvy for some of the blue-rinse crumblies in the audience. But even the most doddery get their laughing tackle out after the interval. And, get this, the production is better than whiz-kid Mendes’s revival at the Donmar Warehouse a few years ago. They’ve got some guy in from Washington to direct it, one Douglas Wager – yeah, that’s Wager as in bet. He’s a specialist in American comedy of the Twenties and Thirties, and, boy, does he know his stuff. Laugh? I almost missed my deadline…

For those, like me, who have spent their entire working life in newspapers, The Front Page will always be something special. Hecht and MacArthur, both journos themselves, knew their dramatic territory inside out. What remains remarkable about this perennially fresh and entertaining comedy, though, is that it offers a savage satire on the ethics, or rather the lack of them, of the press, while simultaneously emerging as a glorious celebration of the wily ways of hard-bitten newspapermen. Hecht was absolutely right to describe the play as a "valentine" to his years in the inky trade, but it is a valentine with a sting.

The action is set in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago in 1928. An anarchist who, as one pressman puts it, had the misfortune to kill a coloured cop in a town where there's a big coloured vote, is facing execution the following morning. What particularly peeves the hacks is that the hanging is timed for 7am, which means they will miss the City edition.

But, if the reporters are cynical - they lose all interest in a double love-triangle slaying when they learn that those involved are black - they seem like fallen angels in comparison with the corrupt city authorities, represented by William Roberts's vulpine, dinner-jacketed mayor and Richard Cordery's magnificently craven, porcine Sheriff. These guys are prepared to overlook the governor's reprieve in order to ensure the execution that will save their political skins.

The piece erupts into dramatic life when the condemned man escapes from his cell, and the star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who is about to quit journalism for marriage and a quiet life in advertising, stumbles on the scoop of his life. The play is, in effect, another love triangle, as Hildy finds himself torn between his sweetheart, Peggy, and his tyrannical editor, Walter Burns, for whom no trick is too low in the pursuit of a juicy exclusive.

Wager's production, on John Gunter's authentically seedy newsroom set, does the piece proud. The first act is a masterly portrayal of the mixture of wisecracks and boredom that is the essence of so much journalistic life, while the second and third explode into hilarious farce, which often has a satisfyingly bitter twist.

Adrian Lukis is a far more persuasive Hildy than Griff Rhys Jones in the Donmar revival, capturing the character's low-down shiftiness as well as his charm, while Michael Pennington is in magnificent form as the hilariously duplicitous Burns, cajoling, bullying and blackmailing with the reckless desperation of the born farceur. You realise that these two newshounds are bound to each other by bonds far stronger than romantic love.

A superb ensemble of more than 20 actors bring almost all the supporting roles, however small, to vivid life, and my only complaint about this outstanding production of one of the 20th century's greatest comedies is the cowardice displayed by most of the cast in refusing to smoke as ferociously as the play's time and setting demand.

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