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American songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s show A Christmas Story was Tony-nominated in 2013, but it is the team’s Off-Broadway musicals that have gradually reached the UK – firstly their song cycle Edges, and now the European premiere of Dogfight.

Based on the 1991 movie of the same name, the action mainly takes place on one day – November 21, 1963 the day before JFK’s assassination – when a group of Marines fresh from training have one night of freedom in San Francisco before they are deployed to Vietnam.

As part of the entertainment the men bet on who can bring the ugliest girl to a party traditionally known as a Dogfight. Corporal Eddie Birdlace thinks he has found the perfect candidate in the shy, awkward and Woody Guthrie-loving waitress Rose – until she walks out on him, disgusted with how he has manipulated her.

Pasek and Paul’s score is rousing in the early stages, creating the high-energy atmosphere surrounding the Marines and the intensity of the bonds they have made with each other – in particular Birdlace and his pals Boland Cellen Chugg Jones and Bernstein Nicholas Corre – known as The Three Bees. But the musical themes can be repetitive and the imbalance of sound between the band and vocals can jar.

Yet when the tone becomes tender, and Eddie returns to take Rose out on a proper date, Dogfight really comes into its melodic own with numbers including the heartbreaking Pretty Funny and quirky First Date, Last Night. Peter Duchan’s witty libretto also manages to add a lighter side to the intense emotion of the piece.

As Rose, sweet-voiced Laura Jane Matthewson makes a staggeringly impressive professional London stage debut, so believable is her transformation from wallflower to a woman with her own strengths and ideals. In the role of Eddie, Jamie Muscato is particularly moving as he tries to make sense of having survived the Vietnam conflict four years on. Elsewhere, Rebecca Trehearn is memorable as prostitute Marcy, railing against the sexism so rife around her.

As always, Matt Ryan proves himself a fine storyteller in a production that is beautifully underscored credit to musical director George Dyer. The flow of the narrative almost has a cinematic quality, helped by the sharp, stylised work of choreographer Lucie Pankhurst.

Along with elements of Pasek and Paul’s score, set/costume designer Lee Newby plays a major part in bringing the era to life the Golden Gate Bridge backdrop on which the band resides is hugely effective.

Producer Danielle Tarento, who scored such a success with Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse, is dedicated to introducing shows like this to London audiences. She deserves praise for doing so, as the fringe is definitely better off for Dogfight’s arrival.

Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse

  • Southwark Playhouse, London
  • August 8-September 13, PN August 13
  • Authors: Peter Duchan book/lyrics, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul music/lyrics, based on the Warner Bros film and screenplay by Bob Comfort
  • Director: Matt Ryan
  • Design: Lee Newby set/costume, Howard Hudson lighting, Andrew Johnson sound
  • Musical director: George Dyer
  • Choreographer: Lucie Pankhurst
  • Technical: Danielle Tarento casting, David Warwick production manager, Philippa Batt costume supervisor, Diana Estrada hair, wigs/make-up
  • Cast includes: Jamie Muscato, Laura Jane Matthewson, Nicholas Corre, Cellen Chugg Jones, Rebecca Trehearn, Amanda Minihan
  • Producer: Danielle Tarento
  • Running time: 2hrs 10mins

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