His Girl Friday
In style and substance, John Guare’s adaptation of the 1940 film classic His Girl Friday, is a glorious throwback to the golden era of big screen screwball comedies. Filled with cutting one-liners, wacky slap-stick and stereo-typical characters, this play transforms the Arts Centre Playhouse into a Sunday afternoon session at The Astor.
Columbia Pictures’ 1940 film was in fact an adaptation of another play, Ben Hect and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, and Guare has cleverly reverted the film’s plot back into the single setting of its original inspiration. The pressroom of Chicago’s criminal court sees cynical editor Walter Burns (Phillip Quast) learn of his ex-wife and former number-one reporter Hildy Johnson’s (Pamela Rabe) engagement to an insipid insurance salesman, and her imminent to move to New York. Determined to disrupt her plans Burns convinces her to cover one last story, the impending execution of convicted cop-killer, Earl Holub.
Originally adapted for London’s National Theatre in 2003, Guare has recently made some nice tweaks to the script, setting the play on August 31, 1939 – the day before Germany invaded Poland – to allow for the protagonist of the scoop Hildy is chasing to be stylishly linked to the news of the time. However the sweet dialogue this allows for is somewhat counteracted by densely plotted exposition in the first half of Act One. It’s not until Rabe’s Hildy bursts on to the stage and Quast’s Burns starts circling his quarry that the play really starts to fire.
Rabe, as always, is brilliant. Perfectly timed ripostes, wonderfully madcap slapstick and classic farce are all flawlessly demonstrated. Meanwhile Quast is her equal match at delivering wicked wit with lightning pace. His grizzled schemer is every bit the devilish matinee idol.
The large cast of 16 cover a number of roles with no less than 20 characters gracing the stage. Of particular note is John Leary in a magnificent dual portrayal of pressroom prissy-boy Bensinger, full of gorgeously rounded “oh’s”, and the downright hilarious drunkard Pinkus. David Woods creates a truly sympathetic character out of Holub and executes some skilful clowning. As his tragic lover Mollie Malloy, Kate Cole gives an excellent reading of a 1930’s Chicago moll with a heart full of love and a mouth full of venom. MTC newcomer Tom Hobbs makes a delightful debut as the withering obituaries writer subbed in to replace Hildy, while veteran Giordano Gangl is authentically sweet as Dutch prison officer Woodenshoes. As is her wont, Deirdre Rubenstein leaves teeth marks all over the scenery in the small role of Hildy’s mother-in-law to be.
Director Aidan Fennessy adds a cute bit of false egotism at the top of the show, through projected black and white credits that hark back to the original film, but the celluloid feel ends there. Pacing is excellent, considering the dialogue thick script, and use of Tracy Grant Lord’s stylishly designed set is well thought out and makes the most of its ingenious depth. Lord’s costume designs are exquisite; every character fitted perfectly and looking immaculately a part of the period. Special kindness has been paid to the leading lady through crafty use of optical illusion.
While Guare’s script could probably still use a little more fine-tuning, His Girl Friday is a joyous reflection on a bygone era of entertainment, and this production, filled with skilful performances as it is, provides oodles of old-fashioned fun.