Dogfight is a weird, ugly, cornball musical about weird, ugly, cornball Americans — and it's all the better for that.
Based on a little-watched 1991 movie about marines in the 1960s, this new American import at the Southwark Playhouse still feels relevant thanks to its sure-footed stance against the misguided machismo and American imperialism that flower in times of war — here specifically the build-up to the invasion of Vietnam.
Three obnoxious jarheads prepare to get shipped out for their first tour of duty by heading into San Francisco for one final blow-out. They join up with their equally young, dumb buddies to drink and carouse and take part in ‘the dogfight’ of the title — a competition to see which soldier can dig up the ugliest girl and humiliate her in a dance-off at a bar. It's all business as usual, until Eddie (James Muscato) unexpectedly grows a conscience and falls for the dowdy but sweet waitress he’s brought along, Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson). And despite the scuzzy way the two meet, an unlikely love story blooms with Eddie soon learning that there might be more to life than simply being a prize asshole.
There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Eddie getting re-educated: a scene in an up-scale restaurant where Rose shows him up by swearing like a soldier is especially cute. Matthewson is very good in her debut, both charming and funny, while Muscato is believable as the lunk with a heart hidden away: both actors navigate their differing crises well.
It’s a small, human story but the bigger themes within it play well against the background of America at the crossroads (with the story taking place on the eve of the assassination of JFK). And that growing sense of the high stakes involved lends itself well to the kind of over-emoting that Broadway musicals specialise in. The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, have already helped the show win a few notable awards during its New York premier in 2012. Well sung by the leads here and backed by a strident six-piece band, they are a touch over-processed and can be a bit sincere at times, but in a way the corniness simply helps reinforce the main idea of the show, to depict down-home America warts-and-all.
Southwark Playhouse has a strong track record of pulling off brassy musicals in its small main space and Dogfight is another solid crowd-pleaser. Matt Ryan’s direction is clear and the choreography by Lucie Pankhurst is neat and confident. There is also energetic support from the lively chorus of knucklehead Marines, though the other women in the cast are less well-served by both the songs and the story — which is ironic considering the play's feminist agenda.
Dogfight is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 13 September 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.