With the West End currently hosting the most popular musical set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the intimate Southwark Playhouse, which has gained a reputation for producing the most exciting musical productions on the London fringe, seems a fitting venue for an equally moving and harrowing story with no flying helicopter in sight.
Dogfight is an impressive musical from American writing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who have created one of the most original and composite scores in the modern musical theatre canon. Unlike Miss Saigon, Dogfight is set on the eve that a group of 'Jarheads' are about to enter the conflict in Vietnam. To celebrate their final night in San Francisco, the group set up a 'Dogfight', where each guy has to find a date to bring to a dance, the winner being the one who brings the ugliest girl. As Eddie finds Rose in a diner and takes her to the competition, she finds out the rules of the game and is quite rightly upset. As Eddie attempts to apologise, the two realise their feelings for each other too late, and Eddie is deployed.
The second act is certainly stronger than the first, mainly thanks to the context which comes too late in this particular production to give weight to the central story. The production as a whole is simple and economical, which places much of the success on the shoulders of Pasek and Paul's score. As a team, their work never feels overblown or 'showy' - it works perfectly as a function to the drama rather than stopping the show with an irrelevant mix of styles and ideas in the hope that one of them sticks, which is my usual complaint with new musicals. Both music and lyrics perfectly match, creating a seamless narrative that supports the audience through an entire journey, creating a perfectly judged finished product, that equals the sum of its parts.
One of the musical's main strengths is Peter Duchan's tight and direct book. Adapting the screenplay from the little known 1991 film, the scenes are as strong and as interesting as the perfectly placed songs throughout. The book, score and lyrics work in harmony - a fact that can often be taken for granted, especially in new musicals. Rose and Eddie's relationship blossoms at just the right rate, and the more intimate scenes of their first date are expertly constructed, with an equal balance of things going unsaid as well as discussed, making for a believable and empathetic resolution. Duchan gives each character a comfortable idiom to work in, with the script becoming as compelling as the musical moments.
At times the production seems suffocated by the direction, which in many places represses the humour of the piece and as a result stunts the audience's relationship with the main characters. With an economical ensemble playing multiple characters, the focus remains too clear on the central couple and leaves not enough scope for other individuals to shine. Whilst this succeeds in focusing the central narrative, in this context it highlights the lack of sub-plot and makes the overall pace and energy sag in both acts. Whilst the thrust staging is competently handled in larger moments, scenes between two characters often suffer from constant wandering.
Musical director George Dyer confidently handles an incredibly strong band, taking full control of the musically challenging production. The company vocals are tight throughout and powerful in all the right places. The overall sound is some of the most impressive I've heard in the venue - with solid sound design throughout.
Performances are consistent throughout, with Jamie Muscato's Eddie standing out vocally, particularly throughout the second act. Laura Jane Matthewson seems far too pretty to be Rose, and despite excelling in the more sensitive moments, misses the humour of the role which helps her become relatable. Whilst this certainly seems to be a director's decision rather than the actor's, it is one that sadly keeps the lid firmly on the pot, rather than ever letting it boil over.