Even as ritual humiliation goes, this is particularly cruel: a group of US marines, in San Francisco for one last night in 1963 before they head to war, initiate a game whereby each must lure the least attractive girl they can find to a party, with money in the pot for whoever brings the 'ugliest' date. Though fairly simplistic, the premise of Dogfight - making its European debut at the Southwark Playhouse - is an instantly intriguing one and a highly effective set up for the pathos that's to come.
Quietly charming waitress Rose is the unfortunate selection of Eddie (Jamie Muscato) and is portrayed with such quirky likeability by Laura Jane Matthewson - especially in her party-prep number 'Nothing Short of Wonderful' - that you dread her ever finding out the truth behind the date that's got her so excited. But of course the moment comes, courtesy of semi-toothless call girl Marcy (a gloriously grim Rebecca Trehearn), and though their ensuing duet wonderfully showcases the sublime vocals of both, I couldn't help but feel Rose's reaction to the ruse lacked the sharp sting of truth; as such, her key song 'Pretty Funny' isn't quite the emotional gut punch it perhaps could be.
Still, Matthewson is nothing short of fantastic elsewhere, and her foul-mouthed restaurant outburst is the comedic highlight of the night, with booming laughter obscuring the second half of most of the lines. For a professional debut in particular, hers is a remarkably assured, sparkling performance.
It's Rose's date, though, who impresses most. In the highly capable hands of Jamie Muscato, Eddie Birdlace is a hugely charismatic creation. A guy's guy with substance, he's got enough natural charm to bring the audience (as well as Rose) back on-side after his wholly ungentlemanly behaviour. Muscato is every bit as skilled in the tiniest of moments as in the more demanding of scenes, and if Rose's emotional collapse falters, it's his that really hits home.
It's difficult to warm to Birdlace's fellow misfits; the young cast is energetic and committed but the characters don't do anything to contradict their "pack of jerks" label. (That said, if there's a Fringe Award for Best Drunk Acting in a Musical, Samuel J Weir has my vote.) And unfortunately, their more boisterous numbers are somewhat let down by the lyrics not being especially audible in the space.
That score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is melodic, memorable and occasionally moving, and Peter Duchan's fine book, much like the show as a whole, comes into its own in the interaction between Rose and Eddie; there's a line towards the end that could easily slip in alongside "You had me at hello" from Jerry Maguire in the swoon stakes. Staging is fairly basic, though the representation of the Golden Gate Bridge is nicely done, and anyway, in Dogfight's best moments, the talent of this cast and quality of the score are more than enough.