His Girl Friday was Howard Hawks' 1940 screen spin-off, which, after watching it as a child, prevented me from ever seeing another production of The Front Page with entirely fresh, uncritical eyes. Though the story - wily editor tricks star reporter out of marriage and premature retirement as both become embroiled in jailbreak scoop - is nearly identical, the Hawks version makes one crucial alteration. Instead of two hard-bitten male hacks, the reporter becomes Hildegard (instead of Hildebrand) Johnson, ex-wife as well as ex-employee of editor Walter Burns, giving the story a sublime sexual jolt.
Now, 60 years on, the gender-bended version of Hecht and MacArthur's story returns to the stage. The National commissioned American playwright John Guare to adapt it, incorporating both the original Front Page script and the Friday screenplay. What a corker!
Or rather, what a corker it could have been. Perhaps I'd raised my expectations too high, but the finished article seems decidedly lacking in fizz. What's meant to be a screwball comedy raises titters more than guffaws. Instead of the audience, it's an apparently under-rehearsed cast that loses its breath, from talking rather than laughing, and still they don't achieve the rapid-fire pace the dialogue requires.
Paying homage to the piece's mixed-medium heritage - and working within the budgetary constraints of the Olivier's £10 Travelex season - American director Jack O'Brien presents the play as if it's a film in the making. As you enter the auditorium, Bob Crowley's cardboard-looking set is still being assembled, the "off-camera" edges clearly visible, director and continuity crew chairs aligned stage left.
But, aside from some topping and tailing of hurrying extras, that's about as far as it goes. If this is a film, why are the actors still acting when clearly "out of shot"? Why not have them loitering at the side, having their noses powdered, as they await their cues? Why not a random "cut!" or "action!"? And just where are the cameras? (With plenty in use for the concurrent production of Henry V, they'd hardly break the bank.) So underutilised, the film motif falls flat like so many of the jokes.
As compensation for such disappointments we have Alex Jennings as Walter. He and his somewhat ill-at-ease Hildy, the usually top-notch Zoe Wanamaker, may not spark as well as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, but Jennings - delivering a zippy performance that outshines all - banishes any unflattering comparisons with his screen predecessor. Maybe this one should be Her Guy Friday instead.
- Terri Paddock