Dogfight continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 13 September.
It is November 1963 in San Francisco, and a group of young Marines are celebrating their last night before shipping out to Vietnam with a Jarhead tradition. The ‘dogfight’ which gives this musical, and the 1991 film upon which it is based, its name is a party where the Marine who can bring the ugliest date along wins the bet.
As set-ups for a boy-meets-girl musical go, it’s hard to imagine one which could be more sexist or misogynistic. The party itself, as staged, encourages us to laugh at the dates the men have brought along, making the women’s ultimate rebellion – led by feisty prostitute Marcy in a scene-stealing, rambunctious performance by Rebecca Trehearn – a case of the show’s writers having their cake and wanting to eat it, too.
But among the distasteful scenes – which extend to a brothel-based deflowering of a young Marine in a scene which suggests it’s okay to strong-arm an unwilling woman into sex if she’s a prostitute – emerges the flowering of a tender romance between impetuous, foul-mouthed young Marine Eddie Birdlace (Jamie Muscato) and Laura Jane Matthewson’s Rose, the naive and sensitive young waitress who he picks as his competition date.
And it is in the scenes where these two and their transient, burgeoning relationship take centrestage that this musical’s most affecting moments, and most beautiful songs, emerge. The more Rose blossoms from the introverted dreamer into a confident, warm and funny young woman, the more Eddie lets down his brittle, Marine-trained defenses – and the stronger Dogfight becomes as a result.
Act II in particular has an unevenness of pace as the story chops and changes between still-partying soldiers, the young couple going on their first date, and then a full-scale battle scene after the Marines ship out. But amongst that unevenness, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs really soar, most deliciously with the sweet duet of ‘First Date, Last Night’, encapsulating the excruciating, hesitatingly awkward scenario with a charming sense of lyricism.
Indeed, the duo’s lyrics throughout are intelligent and witty, which makes it such a shame that – as with so many other Southwark Playhouse productions – the balance between the impressive band and the ensemble’s vocals is so lopsided. The six-piece orchestra, led by musical director George Dyer, is large enough give both weight and depth to the show’s often beautiful score. But especially within the ensemble numbers, vocals get lost in the mix with disappointing frequency – or, in the case of the title number, otherwise impressive performances from Trehearn and Matthewson are reduced to shouting screechiness.
Throughout, Lucie Pankhurst’s expressive choreography is a joy to watch, being at its best when it eschews more anachronistic, modern moves in favour of sequences more redolent of the show’s 1960s setting. And Lee Newby’s Golden Gate-based set impresses, forming an evocative, fogbound opening to the show, yet being subtle enough not to detract from the show’s brief, dramatic foray into the Vietnam battlefield.
But the real hero is Laura Jane Matthewson, who in her professional debut nails Rose’s sweet innocence, growing self-confidence and emerging strength and humour. For all Dogfight’s problems with the objectification of women, this engaging, watchable show is a vehicle for a new musical theatre star.
Readers may also be interested in:
Pasek and Paul give first UK interview in run-up to European premiere of Dogfight – Interview