Long before The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the music and lyrics for an unusual love story based on a movie starring River Phoenix. Dogfight was last seen in the UK in 2014 at The Southwark Playhouse and it returns to this theatre as part of the British Theatre Academy’s summer season.
With a group of US Marine’s ready to ship out the following morning, the Vietnam War their final destination, they are ready to celebrate their last night in San Francisco with a traditional ‘dogfight’, a giant party where the soldier who brings along the ugliest date wins the pot. It’s an abhorrent and misogynistic practice, but to pretend these things didn’t happen would simply be naive.
Instead this musical focuses on the love story that develops between Eddie Birdlace and Rose, the girl he initially enters in to the ‘dogfight’ but soon realises means more to him than a cash prize. The themes of friendship and comradery are also heartfelt and touching in this musical, exploring wider sentiments of war and conflict. It’s gritty, offensive and peppered with colourful language, but The British Theatre Academy haven’t shied away from any of this, instead allowing their company to embrace the musical in all its ticker-tape parade glory.
This production by the British Theatre Academy is outstanding, director Dean Johnson has fitted this large scale musical in to the Southwark’s Little without losing any of the drama. Each scene transitions to the next beautifully, and the staging for ‘First Date/Last Night’ is particularly endearing, while George Lyons’ choreography is energetic and fitting to the narrative.
With two alternating casts, a greater number of young people are getting the opportunity to perform in this production of Dogfight, and if the other group are as strong as the press night cast then no one will be disappointed by what they see.
Stephen Lewis-Johnston is wonderful as Birdlace, it takes a special kind of performance to turn such a despicable character in to one that can be loved, his gentle realisation of feeings towards Rose is fantastic to watch. His army buddies, Boland and Bernstein are perfectly portrayed by Joe Munn and Matthew Michaels respectively, their violent natures exposing the vulnerabilities of boys headed to war.
As Rose, Claire Keenan is exceptional. Her acting and vocal abilities are astonishing and watching her perform tonight felt like seeing a star being born. She more than confidently tackled the tricky score while showing off Rose’s inner strengths and fears.
Dogfight may have a less than appealing narrative, but it does have an incredible score, and the British Theatre Academy have grasped this beast by the horns and staged it exquisitely. The unbelievably talented cast ensure that every character flaw and attribute is showcased to its fullest, and if they are the future of musical theatre in this country then I am incredibly excited.