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© Darren Bell

Jamie Muscato (Eddie Birdlace)

© Darren Bell

Laura Jane Matthewson (Rose Fenney) Jamie Muscato (Eddie Birdlace)

© Darren Bell

Laura Jane Matthewson (Rose Fenney)

© Darren Bell

Laura Jane Matthewson (Rose Fenney)

‘Dogfight’ isn’t quite a dog’s dinner, but it’s a peculiarly unlovable musical, a stage adaptation of an obscure River Phoenix film about a group of Vietnam-bound marines locked in a contest to see who can pick up the ugliest girl.

Not promising, but fearless fringe producer Danielle Tarento is a master at spinning flawed American obscurities into high-class emotional escapism. But ‘Dogfight’ misfires, partly because of the iffiness of Peter Duchan’s text, partly because director Matt Ryan lacks the touch of Tarento’s regular helmsman, Thom Southerland.

Ryan’s production is super camp – not exactly unheard of in a musical, but it takes the verity away from this story of oversexed marines on a last bender. ‘Dogfight’ follows Boland (Cellen Chugg Jones), Bernstein (Nicholas Corre) and Birdlace (Jamie Muscato), a trio of delicate marines who dance around  singing boyband-ish songs about what good buddies they are before going out and titteringly trying to bag the ugliest chick possible.

You’d expect some sort of crude menace and threat, perhaps a sense of fear or denial behind the ugly bluster, but no – the unpleasant scenario is presented as a sort of light schoolboy jape. There’s also an iffy punchline of an ethnic minority character who feels very unnecessary.

Still, ‘Dogfight’ undoubtedly mellows. Birdlace’s ‘dog’ is dowdy folk singer Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson), whose self-accompanied songs are the highlight of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score. A little deeper than his buddies, Birdlace has a fit of conscience and tries to get Rose to leave the contest without discovering what’s going on. The awful truth does come out, but she’s touched his troubled soul and he returns to take her on a 'real' date. Which is genuinely nice, but there’s a disappointing lack of sexual chemistry and the whole thing putters into an overwrought ‘bros before hoes’ climax.

The cast is talented and Lee Newby’s Golden Gate Bridge-style set is beautiful. A couple of lavish Southerland-style set pieces might even have papered over ‘Dogfight’s moral cracks, but it’s all very restrained on that score. Ultimately, it’s a lightweight show about heavyweight themes, without the conviction to rewardingly interrogate its own underlying nastiness.

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