In the murderous, 1920s windy city of Chicago, the sexy dames manipulate the press mercilessly. Same city, same time, but in The Front Page view of the world, it s the press who do the manipulating - of dames, pols, general public and each other. No one escapes the hounding of these hacks.
The original 1928 stage play was written by two veteran Chicago newspapermen, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who obviously knew their stuff. So compelling is the cut and jibe of this outrageous behind-the-headlines tale that Hollywood has paid it the considerable honour of remaking it four times.
Although the plot has more twists than the Thames, the general gist is this. Star reporter Hildy Johnson (Griff Rhys-Jones) is packing it in to get married, move to New York and become an advertising exec, but not if his hard-bitten, unscrupulous editor Walter Burns (Alun Armstrong) can help it. Just as Hildy s about to taxi to the rail station, condemned cop-killer Earl Williams (Simon Gregor) stages a jail break hours before his hanging and the intoxicating chase for the scoop is on - Hildy and his rival reporters firmly in tow.
From the first gun-shot, this is a frenzied, farcical ride and a superb vehicle for the ensemble acting of the 19-strong cast from which director Sam Mendes squeezes the very best. The gum-smacking, wise-cracking gang of reporters and the corrupt officials are unlikeable but irresistably watchable. And cameo characters produce some exquisite scene stealers - Neil Caple as a messenger who won t be deferred, Adam Godley as a hygiene-obsessed hack and John Hodgkinson as the immigrant guard with a theory on crime prevention in particular.
The leads are also strong. Armstrong may have a face only a mother can love but his talent is something anyone can appreciate. Despite the lateness of his appearance on stage, his presence - and high-decibel demands - are felt and heard throughout.
Rhys-Jones is affable but he just couldn t deliver what I really, really wanted. I mean no disrespect to him when I say I wish he was a woman. Although Hecht and MacArthur wrote Hildy as a man, to my mind, the most hilarious rendition of the story is Howard Hawks 1942 film His Girl Friday which saw the fiesty Rosalind Russell as Hildy against ex-love Walter Burns played by Cary Grant at his comic best. This romantic spark added a chemistry to the hi-jinx that Rhys-Jones and Armstrong, no matter how good, just can t recapture. Still, love tug-of-war or not, the Donmar s The Front Page is a fun and fast-paced evening.
Terri Paddock, December 1997