Dogfight is a musical that has attracted controversy ever since it premiered at the Southwark Playhouse a few weeks ago. The premise of the show – a group of rookie Marines spend their last night before deployment having a competition – a “dogfight” – to see which of them can take the “ugliest” girl to the dance – is problematic to say the least. However, if you can get past this initial concept, there is a deep and powerful show underneath.
Written by Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, this relatively recent musical was based on a 1991 film of the same name starring River Phoenix. It follows Eddie Birdlace, a cocky and charming young Marine, who invites waitress Rose Fenney to the dance but ends up falling in love with her for real. Jamie Muscato is excellent as Eddie, charismatic enough so that you can understand Rose falling for him, and appealing enough so that you can root for him despite his dubious behaviour. Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose is superb in her professional debut, a real star in the making, and her character, despite what you might think, is no pushover.
During the first hour or so of the performance, I did find myself squirming uncomfortably at the way the Marines spoke about and treated women. Having said that, Eddie’s character development is clear: his facial expressions, body language, and occasionally his speech show that he is uncomfortable with the “game”. The audience’s sympathies, too, were clearly with the women, as evidenced by the loud cheer when they managed to get their own back.
What the show does wonderfully is suggest that all this bravado and misogyny is bound up with a sense of aggressive masculinity, a desire for camaraderie among the Marines and a naive belief in war as an adventure. The subsequent deaths of Eddie’s friends in Vietnam – suggested to us at the beginning of the show and developed more explicitly in the second half – shows how this attitude is just as damaging to the young men involved as it is to the women.
After all this, the subdued, moving and unconventional ending left me drained and affected. If you want a musical that will make you think as well as move you, this is one not to miss.