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British Theatre Academy presents Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse

Dogfight - photo by Eliza Wilmot
Dogfight – photo by Eliza Wilmot

A musical set around the Vietnam war where the main protagonists are fairly repellent and with few redeeming features really shouldn’t work, should it? Well, Ben J Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duncan don’t agree and as a consequence, I had a visit to the Southwark Playhouse to see The British Theatre Academy production of their show Dogfight.

It’s 1963 and a group of US marines are heading into San Francisco for a last night on the town before shipping off to Vietnam. Chief among the group are the “Three Bees” – Privates Eddie Birdlace (Stephen Lewis-Johnston), Boland (Joe Munn) and Bernstein (Matthew Michaels) – who have organised the traditional ‘Dogfight’ a cruel game with simple rules. Each Marine has put $50 in a pot and the one who brings the ugliest date to the party wins the money. The marines set out to find a date ‘good’ enough to win them the prize and Eddie believes his chances of winning are going to be guaranteed when he goes into a diner and meets young waitress Rose (Claire Keenan).

Eddie works his charms on her and Rose, overwhelmed by this handsome marine’s manner, agrees to go with him. At the party, the men are feeling confident while the women, with one exception, know nothing of what is occurring. The exception being Marcy (Charlotte Coles), a wisecracking, near-toothless prostitute who Boland, in defiance of the rules, has procured for the evening. As the evening progresses, Marcy has a heart to heart with Rose, while Eddie seems to be having second thoughts about his involvement in the ‘Dogfight’. For both Rose and Eddie, this night is going to be long and have a profound effect on both of them that will last for years to come.

My initial thoughts about Dogfight were really not that positive. The basic story of men treating women in such a contemptuous way not only goes against everything we believe in today but also brought back memories of my time in the RAF when things like this were, if not the norm, something that occurred occasionally. However, give the show it’s due, there is no attempt to glamorise the marines. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that their attitudes and self-belief are the result of the lies they are told by the military establishment and ultimately the government. This is really summed up well in the song “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” which promises of the rewards to come for America’s chosen few.

This production has two separate casts and the one I saw was really superb. With every actor really throwing themselves into their parts and delivering a first-rate performance. Stephen Lewis-Johnston and Claire Keenan as Eddie and Rose respectively looked and sounded great together with a real chemistry that permeated the entire theatre. Eddie’s journey from swaggering ‘hero’ to nervous suitor and finally to a broken man was a pleasure to watch. Drawing every nuance out of the character, Stephen Lewis-Johnston takes us along the journey so we started out despising Eddie, then understanding him and finally wanting to help him as he realised what his country had done for him. Equally impressive was Claire Keenan. Rose has some very emotional songs, from the ecstatically happy “Nothing Short of Wonderful” to the emotionally draining “Pretty Funny” and Claire delivers every ounce of Rose’s emotions in fantastic style.

Director Dean Johnson doesn’t have much space in which to operate but manages to fit in great movement and, with Choreographer George Lyons, some very impressive dance numbers. Designer, Andrew Exeter and Dean Johnson have kept the set small but effective, making great use of wooden crates. The costumes are on the whole very era-appropriate though some of the uniforms didn’t look quite right, but this is a minor point. The four-piece band under MD Leo Munby sounded good though, as the actors weren’t mic’d up, there were a couple of times when the music slightly overwhelmed the voices.

Dogfight is an unusual musical and I found myself moving from feeling a bit negative to actually loving the story. The writing is great, the songs really flesh out the narrative and, in the talented hands of The British Theatre Academy, the show is definitely worth a trip to Southwark to see.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Based on the 1991 movie of the same name starring River Phoenix, Tony and Academy Award-winning composing team Pasek and Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman, La La Land) deliver the hauntingly beautiful Dogfight.

It’s November 21, 1963. On the night before their deployment to Vietnam, three young Marines set out for one final boys’ night of debauchery, partying and maybe a little trouble. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, an awkward and idealistic waitress whom he enlists to win a cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and opens his eyes to the power of love and compassion.

Presented by the British Theatre Academy, this youth production is presented by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe).

Please note this show contains: Flashing Lights, Strobe Lighting, Haze, Strong Language, Weapons, Loud Noises, Scenes of a sexual nature and depictions of violence that some may find distressing. Please ask at box office if you would like additional information on content warnings.

Creative Team
Director – Dean Johnson
Musical Director – Leo Munby
Choreographer – George Lyons
Designer – Andrew Exeter and Dean Johnson
Lighting Designer – Andrew Exeter
Sound Designer – Andrew Johnson
Stage Manager – Marcus Marsh
Casting – British Theatre Academy and Anne Vosser

Cast
Mollie Angus, Evan Blanque, Harry F Brown, Reuben Burrows, Jada Marie Campbell, Lucca Chadwick-Patel, Charlotte Coles, Matty Collins, Courtney Fannon, Ewan Hawkins, Joseph Heron, Sadie Hurst, Eleanor Jarvie, Claire Keenan, Bethan Keens, Mariam Khalid, James Knudsen, Stephen Lambert, Matthew Michaels, Joe Munn, Katie Offiler, Jake Stewart, Ginnie Thompson, Katie Upton, Daniel Walford and Ben Wilton.

British Theatre Academy presents
Dogfight
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan
19 – 31 AUG 2019
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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