theatre: Dogfight

It’s been far too long since I’ve seen a show having been away for the summer, but I’ve had a ticket to see the European premiere of Dogfight booked for a few weeks now and having seen lots of positive feedback I was very excited to see it. I’d also never seen a production at the Southwark Playhouse before this and was looking forward to seeing what this theatre was like!

Dogfight is set in 1963 the night before a group of marines are to be deployed to Vietnam, and they have their last night of freedom. Following tradition, the marines hold a ‘dogfight party’ where prize money is given to the marine who brings the ugliest date to the party.

photo credit: Francis Loney

photo credit: Francis Loney

The small cast of 11 gave so much energy into their performances and in some scenes it was impossible to keep up with what everyone was doing, there was too much to watch! They were led by Jamie Muscato as Eddie Birdlace and Laura Jane Matthews as Rose Fenney however it’s very fair to say that the entire cast made this show especially with the strength in the group numbers.

Considering this is her London stage debut, Matthewson’s performance as Rose was truly impressive, with both her acting and vocal skills. Not only that but Rose is a character that truly goes through the motions, and it was so refreshing to see Matthewson play her like a true professional with raw honesty. Undoubtedly Rose is one of the most intelligent characters in the show as she goes through her arc of elation, heartbreak, understanding and forgiveness while also being able to stand up for herself with her head held high even in the toughest times.

photo credit: Francis Loney

photo credit: Francis Loney

The change within the character of Eddie I found fascinating to watch especially with how well Muscato portrayed him. At the beginning of the show he very much holds the same mentality of the other marines in regards to the dogfight up until he takes Rose to the party and starts to realise the inhumanity of it all. With Rose unaware of what the party means she takes offence while Eddie tries to put off dancing with her; the dancing means she is in the final judging of the dogfight. Finally they dance and it’s a bittersweet moment to see Rose so happy.

Having listened to the soundtrack a lot since seeing the show I personally enjoy all the songs however a few stand out above the rest and one of those is the title song, Dogfight, which is sung by Rose and Marcy (a prostitute, hired by one of the marines for the party) played by Rebecca Trehearn. This was the musical highlight of the show for me with the fierce vocals from Trehearn and Matthewson and received immense applause afterwards. It also acted as the moment of realisation for Rose as she was informed by a very savvy Marcy what the party was really about.

Not to be beaten down by this, Rose immediately confronts Eddie with a slap to the face (which was quickly followed by applause) and a few home truths about how wrong the marines attitudes were. This was followed by Ruth Two Bears (played by Emily Olive Boyd) pouring her drink over Bernstein and calling him a jerk after he made a comment about Rose being a bitch, and this too was greeted with applause and cheers from the audience.

While the party goes on, at home Rose sings the heartbreaking Pretty Funny as the truth of the night sinks in. However, admirably she stays positive and thinks “You’ll wake up sometime tomorrow and forget to even care,” which I thought showed incredible strength of character. The marines are still out enjoying their last night in America and decide that it’s finally time for Bernstein to ‘become a man’ by losing his virginity (something he’s been slightly obsessed with) to a prostitute which they manage after threatening the tired woman. Afterwards Bernstein is proudly regarded as a hero during Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.

Eddie then seeks out Rose to make amends and they go to dinner where he reveals more of his real self and strips away some of the lies he’s told to look impressive and tough. In this scene they almost start over, and it includes the beautiful First Date/Last Night duet, which you will definitely have stuck in your head! After dinner they climb the Golden Gate Bridge and admire the view before eventually going back to Rose’s house and spending the night together.

In the morning Rose gives Eddie her address and he promises to write, but when fellow marine Boland discovers he stayed with Rose Eddie reverts slightly and rips up the address before they leave for Vietnam. The scene quickly changed and they were in battle, at this point of the show my heart felt like someone had their hand clenched round it – I had no idea how the end of the show would pan out.

In such a small space this scene was done really well and seconds after the battle was over the scene had cleverly changed to Eddie returning to San Francisco. Here was where I was most impressed with Muscato’s acting as his whole posture had almost deflated and you could feel the effects war had had on the character. As he searches for Rose he bumps into volunteers of the peace corps (something Rose mentioned in their first meetings she’d like to join), one of whom spits in his face. He finds Rose and she asks him why she never heard from him, and there was so much sadness Matthewson’s voice. Regardless, she quickly forgives him and assures him she’s okay. Eddie questions why he survived the war while his friends didn’t, and the show closes with the pair hugging and Rose welcoming him home. Any dry eyes in the house? I don’t think so!

One thing I adore about fringe theatre is their creativity with small spaces. It’s a totally different experience in these theatres compared to seeing anything in the West End especially when the audience surrounds the stage as it feels much more intimate; they did this well in Dogfight with the marines interacting with audience members especially in Hey, Good Looking where the boys were faux proposing to girls in the front rows. The show is set in San Francisco and I adored the central set which replicated the Golden Gate Bridge, I only twigged in the interval of first seeing the show that that’s what it was and instantly fell a bit in love – is it weird to feel that way towards a piece of set?!

I can’t remember the last time I felt so many emotions during a show and certainly very different ones to the usual show. I have to admit, in the first viewing of Dogfight I caught myself feeling very angry at the misogynist attitudes of the marines, simply disgusted by the way they treated the women in the show, but then having to put it into context and remembering that this was the norm for them and that’s what they thought was acceptable. I consider myself a feminist but don’t feel like I could put into words correctly how I feel about this angle of the show. You can see Rebecca Trehearn’s interesting piece about Dogfight and misogyny here and I highly recommend reading that.

Despite the original feelings of anger, it’s obvious that the females come out on top with Rose controlling how her night with Eddie pans out after the dogfight and Marcy earning money from the party and calling the shots with Boland. Where the females can stick up for themselves and be individuals, in comparison the males hold a pack mentality and use being in the marines as a way to change their identities and have a purpose in the world (despite some not even aware of the war they’re heading into). However as well as this, the scene with Bernstein and the prostitute did horrify me as it reminded me of recent events of men feeling entitled to women’s bodies, here I specifically thought of the Elliot Rodger drive-by shooting, and how the character of Bernstein spoke of the prostitute like an object that he was being denied of.

I don’t condemn Dogfight for this, rather it’s good to see these issues highlighted in the theatre in a different media and context because these problems are still relevant, and to come away from the show with even more to think about than normal was actually very refreshing. I have a feeling Dogfight will play with my mind for quite some time and seeing it twice certainly wasn’t enough for me.

Finishing on a slightly lighter note, in my opinion the whole production was incredibly slick. With a blend of comedy, romance and also very prevalent themes it’s understandable to see how well Dogfight has been received, and not by a singular audience. Both times I saw the show there was a good mix of age and gender so the show certainly pleased all. The band, led by George Dyer, played the music of Ben Pasek and Justin Paul beautifully and I was so impressed with the use of the available space and how director Matt Ryan made the stage seem much bigger than it was. The Southwark Playhouse is known for bringing in interesting pieces so I’m excited to see what they’ll have on in the future and when I’ll next be seeing something there!

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