Nuanced and compelling performances combine with Pasek and Paul’s beautiful score to tell a story of compassion and forgiveness in Room 29 Theatre’s production of Dogfight at theSpace @ Venue 45.
With the success of Dear Evan Hanson, La La Land and The Greatest Showman, American songwriting duo Benji Pasek and Justin Paul’s back catalogue was bound to make a reappearance. At theSpace @ Venue 45, their 2012 Off-Broadway hit Dogfight receives a well-deserved and well-heeled revisit from Room 29 Theatre.
A cult favourite amongst young musical theatre fans, Dogfight uses contemporary music to tell the story of a group of marines on their last night out in the US before they’re shipped out to serve in Vietnam. The group organise a “dogfight”; a party in which each competing marine must try to find the ugliest girl to bring as his date. Eddie Birdlace (Josh Tinline Bartholomew) finds waitress Rose Fenny (Rowena Weir) playing guitar in a local café, and convinces her to accompany him as his date. When Rose finds out the nature of the party, she confronts Eddie and leaves him reevaluating the actions of him and his peers. The rest of the show follows Eddie and Rose as they try to reconcile the unreconcilable in one bittersweet night.
The staging of this production is familiar to anyone who saw the musical’s UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse. Both productions take place on an unraised thrust stage using minimal props to distinguish between locations. However, this staging hinders Room 29’s production slightly as a lack of head-mics means that sound is lost each time the actors turn to address the audience on the thrust of the stage.
Room 29 also follows Southwark’s lead with an onstage band, who soar through Pasek and Paul’s beautiful piano and string arrangements with ease. The music in this show is some of the duo’s best work and when performed live, it seems to echo the longing of the characters in a way that can bring to you to tears. Particular highlights include the devastating Pretty Funny and the tight all-male harmonies of Some Kinda Time. Josh Tinline Bartholomew, in particular, has a strong voice and gives his all in the incredibly challenging solo Come Back (in which we see Eddie suffering from PTSD).
The cast exhibit fantastic energy throughout the show and the age-appropriate casting drives home the point that many of those in the marine corps were merely teens when joining the fight in Vietnam. Rowena Weir is instantly likeable as Rose – so kind and sincere that it makes the dogfight even more heart-breaking to watch, and Tinline Bartholomew brings a naivety to the role of Eddie which makes you want to believe that he can grow and learn. Rowan Hall is also a stand out as Marcy, a sex worker who is hired to help a marine win the dogfight. Her treatment at the hands of Boland (Calum Shiels) is one of the darker moments in the show, and Hall gives a nuanced performance of strength and insecurity.
Dogfight is, in my opinion, one of the finest musicals of the last ten years, and Room 29 Theatre certainly do it justice in a production that’s equal parts hilarious and haunting. This is definitely one to watch.