★★★★ | Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse

San Francisco 1963 is the setting for this powerful musical, receiving its European premiere at The Southwark Playhouse. A bunch of marines are on their final night of shore leave before heading off to fight in Vietnam and decide to play a cruel and misogynistic game. They each pool their money; pick up the plainest girls that they can find and compete for who can pull the worst of the bunch and gain the prize money.

Based on the 1991 movie of the same name starring River Phoenix, Dogfight premièred Off-Broadway in 2012, when it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and was nominated for 5 Outer Critics Circle and 2 Drama Desk Awards.

Eddie (Jamie Muscato) meets waitress Rose (the talented and powerful newcomer Laura Jane Matthewson) and what starts as a slightly brash testosterone fuelled piece evolves into something much more tender and touching between the two leads. The supporting cast is excellent too, giving sterling performances. Peter Duchan’s book is well written and the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are a perfect bend of humour, pathos and warmth. There’s a wordy Sondheim-like quality to some of the numbers that work well within the context. The choreography is good (if slightly restricted by the smallish space) and the almost bare stage is cleverly used to recreate various scenes.

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Southwark Playhouse has really picked out a gem in this award-winning premiere. There’s a moving and enthralling story, superb acting and singing and the piece delivers everything it promises and more (including a lot of hot young marines in their underwear, I couldn’t not mention that one).