BOLD, THE FRONT PAGE

Dateline: London's Donmar. Classic re-run is funny, fast and ... gay?

There's something about `The Front Page' and its savage satire, brilliantly contrived plot and breakneck dialogue which appeals year after year. David Benedict reports on a new production that is a scoop in its own right.

Dishonesty, injustice and good old-fashioned sleaze: we just can't get enough of it. First the killer musical Chicago storms into town with its sleazy depiction of newspapers suckered by sex, lies and ticker-tape. Now the same city is back in the news in The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's rip-roaring, with no-holds-barred, fireball farce in a cracking new production at the Donmar Warehouse.

Designer Mark Thompson wisely obeys the golden rule of farce: make sure you have solid doors for the cast to slam and rush in and out of, particularly crucial in this hilariously manic Depression-era classic with its cast of 22 (which director Sam Mendes has pared down to a budget-boggling 19). His exemplary set is a splendid atmospheric, smoke- and phone-filled, grubby Chicago press room in 1928 dominated by a vast, dirty arched window looking out on to the high-rise city which has seen 421 murders in one year.

The deliriously funny plot concerns Earl Williams, an anarchist who is about to be hanged for killing a policeman. The ghoulish press gang are desperate to squeeze every last sensational gasp out of the story, but ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Griff Rhys Jones) of The Examiner wants out. To the horror of his scruple-free editor Walter Burns (Alun Armstrong) and derision of his gum-chewing, wise-cracking, amoral colleagues, he's throwing in the towel to get married. Yet just when everything seems to be going according to plan, Williams escapes and all hell breaks lose. It's the jailbreak of their dreams and Hildy gets the scoop. What can go wrong? Well, a reprieve for starters, but with just days to go before an election and thousands of law and order votes in the balance, the Republican mayor and sheriff aren't about to let a little thing like justice get in the way.

None of which begins to describe the savagely satirical glories of the brilliantly contrived plot, with its breakneck dialogue which rattles past like gunfire. Perversely, you only have to look to Hollywood to see what a good play The Front Page is. Why else would there be four movie versions of it? Intriguingly, the funniest, Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, does a gender swap on the casting with Rosalind Russell's crackerjack Hildy to Cary Grant's scheming Walter. This ups the ante on the symbiotic, quasi-sexual relationship between the two that is there in the original. It is entirely possible to read it as a gay play with Walter desperate not to lose Hildy to a woman. The world of newshounds and deadlines is portrayed as ruthlessly macho but the sheriff's silence is bought over his night in a hotel with a librarian of strangely unspecified gender, and slangy references to homosexuality litter the script.

Mendes marshals a terrific cast who seize their opportunities with relish. Ian Bartholomew is excellent as the sheriff, switching from puffed-up swagger to "trembling like a horse", and Lizzy McInerney is a broad but touching broad who believes in Earl's innocence. Adam Godley shines as the gangling hygiene-obsessed Tribune hack with a penchant for writing poems to illustrate the human-interest angle, while Neil Caple deliciously milks his every moment in the tiny, pivotal role of the man with an important message.

Ultimately, beyond the gutsy ensemble playing, success depends on Hildy and Walter. Griff Rhys Jones repeats his tried and trusty farce persona and, with his evident press-night tension behind him, looks like relaxing into a typically frantic performance, all frenzy, bafflement and double takes. As for Alun Armstrong, we don't meet him until late in the second of three acts but he dominates the entire evening. He barks, bleats and bellows across the stage, grabbing Hildy and the show by the scruff of the neck and hurtling through to a zinger of a climax.

The pace of the first act meanders and Mendes could afford to set things up a little less deliberately. He could even take a leaf out of Howard Hawks's book and overlap dialogue a little more but once the cast is wound up, boy does he let them go as they fill the stage with frantic activity. As often at this address, anyone sitting on the sides will miss out badly but otherwise this murderously funny show kicks up more laughs than a thousand pantos.

To 28 Feb 1998. Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (booking: 0171-369 1732)

The Front Page (1931)

directed by Lewis Milestone

Pat O'Brien beat James Cagney and Clark Gable to the part of the incurable hack Hildy Johnson; Adolphe Menjou turned in a Machiavellian performance as his implacable editor.

His Girl Friday (1940)

directed by Howard Hawks

The inspired decision to cast Rosalind Russell as an all-girl Hildy, with Cary Grant's dizzyingly many-faced Burns as her insistent ex, adds a slew of sex and romance to the breakneck black comedy of Hecht and MacArthur's original.

The Front Page (1974)

directed by Billy Wilder

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau make excellent sparring partners as Hildy and Burns, but the screwball comedy of the original curdles under Wilder's insistent stress on the innate viciousness of the baying newshounds.

Switching Channels (1987)

directed by Ted Kotcheff

For Russell read Turner (Kathleen), for Grant read Reeve (Christopher), for newspaper read newsroom (TV), for re-make read... well, almost anything else.

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