DOGFIGHT – Southwark Playhouse, SE1

WARM, WONDERFUL,  WISE..THE YEAR’S BEST NEW MUSICAL

 

 

Strewth! What a wonderful show.  In this trade we are cautious of superlatives, lest omething even better comes along and renders us weaponless. Nor am I a target audience for American fringe-musicals chewing over the emotional wreckage of the Vietnam war, and the green boys who came back (if they were lucky) to find themselves both traumatized and unpopular. No Woottom Bassett welcomes for most of them, poor devils.

 

But this –  book by Peter Duchan, with plaintive, both folky and rock-wild music and lyrics by Banj Pasek and Justin Paul – is special. Not just because the young men are so roughly, endearingly young and nervously macho, and  move with an energy both joyful and menacing (Matt Ryan directs, Lucie Pankhurst choreographs). Nor is it mere nostalgia, though set in San Francisco in 1967, sliding back as a memory-play to ’63 and the night before embarkation. It has real dramatic energy, never flagging or overstating the obvious, and within the musical form lies a very good play: a romantic, hard-edged and humane love story with universal feeling at its heart.

 

The “Dogfight” of the title is a nasty squaddie ritual for the last night : a pre-brothel prize for whoever can pick up the ugliest girl and get her to a dance to be judged.  Marine Eddie (a waiflike Jamie Muscato, half-lost boy, half-lout) finds Rose, a chubby shy waitress. His basic shy decency makes him gradually hesitate as she blossoms in innocent delight at her first date, but macho comradeship defeats his doubts. We cringe for her, singing to herself anxiously as she dresses (in a truly awful bow-belted party frock) and hoping her beau will be “nothing short of wonderful”.   By this time, I have to tell you, the entire room is helplessly in love with Laura Jane Mathewson, fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music and in her first job. Gotta be Newcomer of the Year: she’s a jewel.

 

Goodness, they say, writes white: but Matthewson gives Rose a beautiful guileless sweetness , never bland, wholly credible, girlish, emotionally vulnerable but with a fierce intelligence. She shines, but – no Madam Butterfly – delights us further with some sharp feminist-cum-motherly scolding when she discovers her humiliation, and more when Eddie remorsefully tries to make it up to her. Their rapprochement is enchantingly – and funnily, and melodiously – achieved. Add a lovely swooping voice, clear and warm, and a seemingly unselfconscious womanly physicality and..well! strong men swoon, and women who were once chubby girls in wrong dresses whoop and cheer. Remember that name. Laura Jane Matthewson!

 

Around these two is gathered a strong cast, notably Nicholas Corre as a geeky virginal fellow-marine with nervous doubts, and Rebecca Trehearn as a minxy tart. Behind them on a towering section of the Golden Gate Bridge an six-piece band sounding twice the size. Ask no more. It’s almost perfect.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 to 13 Sept

rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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