Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Book: Peter Duncan
Director: Dean Johnson
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The freewheeling, cocky musicality and choreography through Dogfight boost two seemingly competing forces. On the one hand we have the vibrant macho camaraderie of three marines who are on a night out following basic training. On the other, the ugly, muscular bullying of entitled men against the world, and women in particular. The 14 strong cast carry it off with aplomb – punchy performances driving home complexity with two huge themes.
Based on the early 1990’s film of the same name, it all takes place on a single night in ‘Frisco in November 1963 where the “three B’s” (marines Birdlace, Bernstein and Boland) and some friends plan a wild evening to celebrate the end of training, and last night in the US before going to Vietnam. They’ve put together a dogfight – a competition where after paying the $50 entrance fee, the man with the ugliest date wins the pot. Eddie Birdlace brings a coffee shop waitress, Rose, but feels bad and tries to cancel his entry – with no success. Cheating, violence, sorrow, maybe even a little pity and some love follow.
Conveying the ugliness of what these men are doing is not the hard task. Ensuring they are not dominated by it, that they’re given humanity as well, is much more difficult. Eddie, being the main focus, turns out to be a more complex character than his initial “jarhead” persona, enabling us to read more widely into the rest of the gang and see them for what they are – scared boys off to a conflict they have barely even heard about. As Eddie, Stephen Lewis-Johnston is a strong lead, giving us grit and simmering violence as well as inch-perfect dancing. His counterpart, Claire Keenan as Rose, is in fine form as a meek and nervous young woman broken to bits by this man but willing to give him a second chance. It may seem strange to say, but these two not being afraid to fully ugly-cry when going through the tough moments, rather than emit a few wan theatrical tears, brings a massive amount to the show in such a close space.
Across the board, there’s some excellent physicality in the moves and music. The ensemble singing is smashing. Numbers like Some Kinda Time with the rest of the marines, and Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade show the group off to full potential. There’s something about conveying menace in a group musical number that proves elusive, but it’s captured nicely here. Throughout, however, there is a little difficulty with combining high notes and force, so a few wobbles in the performance. All this is framed within an extremely simple set of a small raised dais at one end of the room in front of a five-piece live band, before a wide open space. Props are restricted to the uniforms the marines wear as well as a few crates and bottles of beer.
It’s a thrill of a show, really. Bombastic and balanced, clever and considerate. The story itself shows a difficult human side to the US as it prepared for both war and the singing sixties and doesn’t balk at that huge scope. An important story whatever the production and it’s executed excellently here. The cast changes for some performance, but if this is the standard for either, it’s a real credit to the British Theatre Academy who put it all together.
Runs until 31 August 2019 | Image: Eliza Wilmot