(Laura Barnett’s article appeared in the Observer, 9/6.)
This controversial musical about US marines on the eve of war is a critique not a celebration of macho posturing
San Francisco, November 1963: a trio of young marines are out on the prowl for dates to take to a party. It's their last big hurrah before heading off to Vietnam, and a "dogfight": a repellent tradition by which the marines compete to bring along the ugliest woman they can find. But Birdlace (Jamie Muscato) finds his own prejudices undermined when he invites along shy waitress Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson).
A small hailstorm of controversy has been pelting over this new musical, based on a barely remembered 1991 film starring River Phoenix, and the latest American import to the Southwark Playhouse from savvy producer Danielle Tarento. The critical response so far has differed over whether the show – written by Peter Duchan (book), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) – does enough to undercut the repellent misogyny of its set-up.
There is, admittedly, something highly uncomfortable about watching a group of young women being paraded around a dancefloor, in the knowledge that we are meant to find them deeply unattractive: one wonders how on earth Tarento put this to the actresses' agents. But to my mind, the show goes on to subvert the young men's misogyny at every level – not least in aligning their attitude to women so clearly with their attitude to war. This is swaggering, macho culture at its worst – one that dehumanises both women and the faceless enemy the marines are being dispatched to fight. And our sympathies clearly lie with the women: at the performance I saw, a huge cheer erupted when the men (without saying too much) were given their just deserts.