Although Chicago, where The Front Page is set, may now be a tamer city, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's sharp 1928 comedy, with its cynical view of journalism and journalists, still resonates today.
In the United States, the first decade of the last century saw a literal war - waged with guns and lots of intimidation - between rival dailies, starting when William Randolph Hearst set up the Chicago American in 1900. Perhaps it's no accident then that in Douglas Wager's outstanding new production, Michael Pennington's Walter Burns, the hard nosed managing editor of the Examiner, is made up to bear an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles' Hearst-inspired Citizen Kane.
Burns rules the roost in the pressroom of Chicago's criminal court building, where the assembled hacks are currently covering the imminent execution of Earl Williams, a young and idealistic leftist unjustly convicted of murdering a black Chicago cop. But while the others are slavering for a scoop alone, the unscrupulous Burns is also busy trying to do whatever's necessary to keep his star reporter Hilly Johnson from quitting the paper to marry a snooty New York society heiress. When Williams escapes from the authorities, turning to his pseudo-girlfriend Molly, a 'lush' and worse according to the headlines, all get caught up in the resulting media frenzy.
This is a large cast play and is a wonderful opportunity for ensemble playing. It's an opportunity not wasted in Wager's production, which also boasts a convincing realism that perhaps derives from the transatlantic background of the director and various cast members. All of the pressroom gang are a laughably lame lot, with some particularly fine performances from Frank Lazarus as the prissy and slightly camp Bensinger, old stager Malcolm Rennie as dumb cop Woodenshoes.
Most critical, of course, is the relationship between Walter and Hildy. The play has often been described as a barely disguised love story between these two (not at all disguised in Howard Hawks' 1940 Hollywood classic in which Rosalind Russell played Hildy to Cary Grant's Walter). At Chichester, the pairing succeeds almost entirely. Adrian Lukis's high-pitched, rasping sing-song interpretation of Hildy contrasts well with Pennington's tyrannical egotist of an editor, making the love-hate quite evident.
While on the surface, this much revived play is just a mix of sharp-talking one-liners and fast-paced farce, underlying the humour is a sceptical questioning of media values, seemingly unchanged in the 21st century, not to mention some well-aimed institutional swipes at racism and the expediency of politics. And this transfer-worthy production at Chichester does it fine justice. An outstanding start to the 2002 summer season.