Ginger Hibiscus | REVIEW: Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse
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14 Aug REVIEW: Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse

It is 1963, and the, “three B’s” are embarking on a final night of debauchery before their deployment to Vietnam. Preparing for a brutally boozy affair, respect goes out the window as they proclaim themselves kings for an evening, going for broke in their hunt for some wham, bam, thank you ma’am. To escalate the festivities, the US Marines play a vicious game of, “Dogfight,” the young bucks competing to bring the ugliest girl they can to a party. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace chooses Rose, an unassuming and idealistic waitress, as his candidate, he doesn’t anticipate the lasting impact his inhumanity might have on her.

Based on the film of the same name, Dogfight is expertly adapted, with music and lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Catchy, contemporary melodies dominate the score, with lyrics that shock and amuse, and that swirl around and around in your mind without ever getting tired. The show, currently at the Southwark Playhouse, is produced by Danielle Tarento, the award-winning producer of Titanic, with direction from Matt Ryan. A work of art in it’s construction, Dogfight boasts an immense band, clever staging, and uncomplicated but impactful lighting, all set alight by impeccable casting.

The casting decisions are what make this show so spectacular. Every single cast member is phenomenally talented, practiced to perfection, and contributes to a brilliant ensemble performance. This is exemplified by Laura Jane Matthewson, who gives a devastatingly honest performance as Rose, the naïve yet innocent pawn in the cruel game of Dogfight. Rose’s childlike excitement at being invited to her first ever party is deliriously relatable, performed stunningly by Matthewson without even a hint of melodrama. There’s also a real truthfulness in her delivery of Rose’s heartbreak when the Marines’ cards are revealed; they burst the fragile little bubble of self esteem that was blown her way by Eddie in the diner, releasing clouds of sadness piqued by flashes of passion. Matching her acting ability, Matthewson proves herself to be an incredibly able vocalist, showcasing a wonderfully refreshing folk edge to a beautiful voice that at times drifts mournfully across the Playhouse.

Jamie Muscato’s Eddie is every bit as crude and imperious as his character demands. A Marine on the eve of deployment, he’s positively salivating at the prospect of playing the hero, of going off on an adventure to change the world. He’s firm in his conviction that fighting can change everything, and is equally steadfast in the knowledge that his 13 weeks training (!) will deflect the bullets from his body. With probably the strongest vocal performance of the company, Muscato’s portrayal is exquisitely nuanced, dodging the temptation to become a caricature “Jar Head,” whilst remaining contemptibly manipulative and misogynistic.

Whilst stunningly executed, Dogfight is an uncomfortable watch; the way Rose is humiliated and insulted by Eddie resonates just a little too much, and unfortunately falls a bit too close to the truth. Arguably, holding a mirror up to this kind of behaviour and forcing people to think about it from Rose’s perspective might be a small shuffle towards tackling it; but as an audience we are gleefully invited to objectify, mock, and dismiss the women in the show, exemplified by way, “Hey, Good Lookin’” is just dripping in judgemental irony. We’re expected to swallow Rose calling herself, “fat,” and the Marines calling her, “ugly.” Of which, Laura Jane Matthewson is neither. Her character becomes quite frustrating during the second act, as we find ourselves pleading with her to stay away from him, to turn him down when he arrives at her door with pretty words and a pretty flower. But of course Eddie’s hurt her self esteem, he’s left her vulnerable and emotionally bruised and can pick her back up like a plaything. That’s not to say she’s pathetic- far from it, she’s fiercely opinionated, intelligent and eloquent, but these seem to evaporate at the promise of social acceptance.

The marketing materials say that Rose, “rewrites the rules of the game and opens Eddie’s eyes to what really matters in life.” But I think that misses the point. Eddie doesn’t really change as a result of his interactions with Rose, but uses them as a showcase in how to control another human, by breaking them down and making them grateful for any small kindness. It’s the loss of his friends that opens his eyes to what really matters in life, and somehow he’s done such a fantastic job of manipulating Rose that she’s still there for him, after everything.

The reason I feel so strongly about this, is because of the quality of the production. The creative team have done such a sensational job of bringing the story to life that it really made me feel personally angry, personally upset. It is calibre of Matthewson’s acting, her sweet disposition, that made me desperate to jump on stage and shake Rose, to tell her to forget Eddie and forcibly cut him out of her life. And, of course, it was Muscato’s ability to become an Eddie that, whilst exhibiting nasty behaviour, never quite crossed into being evil.

Taken as an uncomfortably accurate depiction of an unsavoury moment in time, Dogfight is definitely one to watch. A brilliant cast, singing brilliant songs, with brilliant staging, it has to be one of the best fringe musicals this year. It’s rare to find such a unanimously talented ensemble, and the impact is just amazing. I’m definitely going back, but I’ll be getting my ticket now, before it sells out.

Dogfight is playing in The Large at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 13th September. Tickets and information are available at: