“Lock your door and hide your daughter”
After the extraordinary success that was In The Heights, the Southwark Playhouse have gone for another American musical theatre import in the shape of 2012’s Dogfight. But whilst expectations were high – something heightened by the auditorium being in the same configuration as for that previous show, the reality fell far short. Peter Duchan’s book, based on the 1991 film of the same name, follows a group of boisterous marines in San Francisco on the night before they’re due to fly out to Vietnam as they look to maintain the (dis)honourable tradition of holding a dogfight.
As we come to realise, their version of a dogfight is distinctly unpleasant, a cruel game played on unsuspecting women and though he is a part of this world of pent-up testosterone and hints of sexual violence, the young Eddie Birdlace soon comes to regret his choice of victim – a sweet waitress called Rose – and tries to make amends, though whether this is because he has fallen instantly in love with her or he has spotted an easy way to get laid on his last night is anyone’s guess. So what is trying to be a sweet love story is overlaid with this troubling sour note throughout.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score is pleasant in its melodic pop way – the band led by George Dyer serve it well – but it severely lacks any real sense of narrative propulsion. Thus many of the songs have a static quality that stultifies the pace of the show – the ‘bum bum bum’ refrain of First Date Last Night is a case in point, by the third time it is hard not to despair of the (repeated) wasted lyrical opportunities. And whilst their strengths lie in the quieter, more emotionally stirring numbers, they don’t do enough to capture the darker side of the whole affair, to try and make us understand the roots of the men’s behaviour rather than simply accept it because they’re about to be slaughtered.
Matt Ryan’s production also suffers from a couple of misjudged decisions. Try as it might but manliness is rarely successfully evoked through the medium of musical theatre and Lucie Pankhurst’s chirpy choreography is hardly the ideal way to suggest life in the Marines, especially once we discover the deep misogyny that lies at the heart of their evening plans. Likewise when they’re finally shipped off to Vietnam, the version of war we see is sadly amateurish, the necessary gravitas conspicuous in its absence. As for the baffling inclusion in amongst the dancing ladies, either own it or hide it properly.
So ultimately it was hard not to be disappointed by Dogfight. Performance levels are undoubtedly strong – Laura Jane Matthewson’s assured debut as Rose displays great emotional control and a deft comic touch in the strongest scenes post-interval, Rebecca Trehearn shines in a number of roles and as Eddie’s military pals Nicholas Corre’s Bernstein and Cellen Chugg Jones’ Boland are vivid if under-developed. And I’d remiss not to point out that as the lights went up, some people were wiping their eyes and a smattering gave a standing ovation so it certainly works on some level, just not mine.