A group of priapic US Marines set out to have a wild last night Stateside before shipping out for the mud and blood of Vietnam. They decide to play ‘dogfight’, a grim exercise in misogyny in which men compete to hook up with the ugliest woman – the ‘winning’ women earning her man a few bucks and a lot of laughs. So far, so military. But our hero – jarhead-with-a-heart Eddie Birdlace (Jamie Muscato in the role played by River Phoenix in the 1991 film on which this is based) – has a problem. He ends up falling for his ‘dog’, Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson).
Though we know the action is set in 1963 – just before the USA’s optimism bled out with JFK on the streets of Dallas – lyricists and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have avoided churning out a turgid Grease-with-guns rock ‘n’ roll show. There’s the odd flash of early 60s dancehall and rock here and there, but much of the music is standard modern musical fare, performed with verve by a six-piece band and a cast in strong voice. Newspapers and ‘gee thanks’, ‘oh my gosh’ exclamations do help to root the story in its setting, though eagle-eyed pedants might note that the 48-star US flag had been obsolete since 1960. Lee Newby’s costumes are rather more spot-on – including Rose’s perfectly ghastly ballgown, a maroon horror with the appearance of a glistening slice of raw liver with a boiled cabbage accent.
Lucie Pankhurst’s dynamic and contemporary choreography matches the score’s detachment from the 1960s setting, giving us a hefty dose of acrobatics leavened with the odd moment of early-60s nostalgia. The bare stage is well suited to Pankhurst’s energetic routines, and also to the emotional intensity of the acting.
Matthewman’s Rose is exceptional. As she tries to smile through tears of betrayal in the Act I closing number, ‘Pretty Funny’, some audience members might find their own eyes welling up. Muscato’s Eddie broods over his feelings for Rose, uncomfortable to find himself putting her up in the dogfight. Later his post-combat anguish is painful to behold. Both leads are also sterling vocal performers. Unfortunately on press night the Playhouse’s speakers drowned the cast’s voices from time to time, and excess treble had some audience members wincing. This should be easy to correct – and it must be.
Perhaps wisely, Peter Duchan’s book is light on moralising. Still, this is a show with a few things to say about misogyny and war. Misogyny, of course, finds its expression in the ‘dogfight’ itself, but reaches added emotional heights as the Marines cajole an exhausted sex worker into one more fuck against her will. Not that women are portrayed merely as saints or victims: Rebecca Trehearn sparkles as Marcy, a grotesque lush with comically bad toilet habits, and Lucy is headstrong enough to disagree with Eddie’s impending mission despite her feelings for him.
As for war, the show’s occasional political references to Uncle Sam’s Vietnamese misadventure feel apt. “There’s nothing to worry about,” Eddie tells Rose. “We’ll be there as advisers … I’ve got 13 weeks’ training under my belt.” This, and other references to war’s grim commonalities, aren’t given enough depth to really bite, and might feel a little strained to some. That said, this is musical theatre, not antiwar agitprop, and it works well as an entertaining spectacle with an interesting story to tell.