Off the scent? Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse

Saturday 9th August, 2014, matinée

Southwark Playhouse have built a solid reputation on bringing some unusual musicals to their intimate theatre and breathing new life into them – the highlight of last Summer being an amazing chamber production of ‘Titanic’.  A year later, almost to the day, we ventured out again for ‘Dogfight’, a new musical with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book by Peter Duchan which premiered off-Broadway in 2012 to great acclaim.

Based on a 1991 film, the story follows a group of marines in 1963, enjoying their last night of freedom in San Francisco before shipping out to Vietnam.  They indulge in an (apparently) time-honoured tradition of pooling their cash for a party, with some prize money set aside for the man who brings the ugliest date, the dogfight of the title. Eddie charms waitress Rose into going along with him but immediately realises he has made a mistake.  When Rose finds out the real reason for their date and punches him in front of his friends he goes after her and convinces her to give him another chance.  A quirky night of romance ensues – but how will Eddie square this with the world of brutality which he is about to enter?

The story seems to be making a point about the way that the military takes young men and desensitises them in order to make them into efficient fighting machines, and their resulting inability to function in ‘civilised’ society.  The only way they seem to be able to enjoy themselves is by humiliating women, whether through the dogfight, or in a particularly disturbing scene in which they intimidate a prostitute into taking on one last client for the night because their friend doesn’t want to go to war a virgin. However, the hard-hitting message is undermined because the love story is so hopelessly sentimental – Rose is innocent and overly impressed with Eddie, and Eddie is weak, finding his identity with the pack, all bluster but with no real depth of character.  The implication seems to be that love conquers all, a disappointing response to such a complex situation, especially as it seems to be the female side of the partnership supplying most of the love.

There are many enjoyable moments along the way, however, and Pasek and Paul fill out the story with a series of strong musical numbers.  Starting with the melodious ‘Take me back’, sung by a guitar-strumming Rose as she sets the scene for the action, the energy is soon ramped up with ‘Some Kind of Time’/’Hey Good Lookin’, where the lads make their plans for the night and begin looking for their dates.  ‘Hometown hero’s Ticker Tape Parade’ is particularly powerful as the lads fantasise about the glory that will await them on their return, in stark contrast to the subsequent hostility that many Vietnam veterans received.  There is plenty of humour and the banter between the marines is well-written and plausibly conveys the laddish hot-house of the military.  There are touching duets too, such as Eddie and Rose’s ‘Come to a Party’ and ‘First Date/Last Night’, and Rose has some strong ballads, such as ‘Pretty Funny’, where she tries to come to terms with the disappointment of being invited out on a false promise.  The title song ‘Dogfight’, when Macy reveals the true nature of the ‘party’, and a scorching critique of men in general, forms a fitting centrepiece for the first act.

The standard of acting and ensemble work was excellent all round, the cast were focussed and the energy was high.  Rebecca Trehearn brought an assured caustic wit to the hard-nosed prostitute Macy, and a powerful vocal delivery of the song ‘Dogfight’. Cellen Chugg Jones as Boland epitomised the unquestioning ‘perfect soldier’ that Eddie seems to be trying to emulate – confident, brutal and uncompromising when it comes to the ‘brotherhood’ of the squad.  As Bernstein, the bespectacled and virginal soldier, a character that seems to be de rigueur for any war movie, Nicholas Corre hits exactly the right note of naivety and testosterone fueled ambition.  Jamie Muscato brings an easy charm to the role of Eddie (perhaps a bit too easy given the character’s insecurities) and brings a light touch and humour to the scenes with Rose.  As Rose, Laura Jane Matthewson has a sweet voice which soars beautifully above the action and portrays an inner strength beyond her years which makes her earlier humiliation seem trivial.

Overall this was a quality production, but was the material worthy of it?  Ultimately, we are not sure if the music really explores the emotions, issues and relationships deeply enough.  Given the clichéd nature of the story, would it be possible to bring a new angle through music alone?  Maybe, but not in this case, entertaining and beautifully written though many of the numbers are.

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