Peter Duchan’s Dogfight is by no means an easy musical to tackle. The best way to describe it would be a play with an identity crisis, its complexity making it difficult to align with a particular genre. Dogfight tells the tale of a group of American marines on the eve of shipment to fight in Vietnam. They decide to pass their final evening continuing their forefather’s crude tradition of the ‘dogfight’. The rules of the dogfight are simple: each man chips into a pot of money which will be won by the soldier judged to have brought the ugliest date to their party. Interwoven with this gritty, testosterone fuelled drama is an unusual blooming romance. However, Exeter University’s Shotgun Theatre Society, have successfully engaged with this complex musical, creating a production that explores the multi-faceted nature of the play, attempting to allow each of its personalities to shine through.
As a socially and culturally conscious play, one of Dogfight’s defining features is its presentation of the Vietnam War. It delves into the arrogance of these US marines, with their position as public heroes giving them a sense of superiority. Shotgun’s production skilfully used choreography, created by Sarah Dean, and under the direction of Samuel Nicholls and Jacob Hutchings, to enhance this. The men’s mock battles and their imitation marching epitomise their naivety about battle, suggesting that just like their own game of dogfight, war is just another power game. Their swagger and bold movements screamed of this overconfidence. The choreography of “Hey Good-Lookin” in particular demonstrated their sense of entitlement. The confidence with which the soldiers dragged and spun the female characters across the stage showed that for the men, women are merely pawns with which to be played. Engagement with the audience, as the male cast members leered into the crowd, created the uncomfortable feeling that no one was free from their hunt for an easily manipulated woman. Throughout, the direction successfully managed the available space, balancing the action between the two sides of the audience, so neither side felt they’d missed out on an integral part by having a traverse stage.
Michael Hogg’s portrayal of the marine Boland, who embodies this arrogance and aggression, was particularly powerful. Dominance and intimidation exuded from him, with the flicker of his jaw line and the strength of his stance being enough to demonstrate his demeanour, even before he asserted his threat in the physicality of hands around a throat. However, there were times when the general choreography was a little excessive, with too many things occurring across the stage to allow the audience to fully appreciate any one of them.
The cast as a whole were dexterous in their characterisation of the roles, ensuring the characters weren’t 2D. Special comment must be made to Kathryn Pridgeon and Stuart Duncan in their ensemble roles, both managing to establish tangible and nuanced characters, no matter the size of the role. Duncan played a series of comedic roles with a perfect deadpan, giving the narrative some necessary comic relief. However, the comedic moments sometimes detracted from the darker side of the play, so more intimate moments were lost.
The two leads of the play, the marine Eddie Birdlace (Harry Butterwick) and his date for the dogfight, Rose Fenny (Charlotte Harris), were empathetically portrayed, making both of their performances very strong. The character development of the two leads, shown by the change in dialogue, was echoed by Butterwick and Harris’ characterisation of the roles. One striking example of this was during Rose’s solo ‘Before It’s Over’, a song of self-realisation. Harris’ vocals were confident and engaging, meaning that you noticed the shift in her character, with a more open and confident posture that contrasted the initial way she’d drawn into herself. Butterwick worked off her development, meeting her glances with a bashful smile, and letting his earlier arrogance slip away to reveal a softer, more self-conscious side. In this way, Butterwick portrayed how Rose’s new acceptance of herself had allowed Birdlace to be honest about his true self. There was a genuine feeling of intimacy and understanding between the pair.
The production and creative teams have worked well together to create a realist set which mimicked the mood of the play. The set changes were well managed, being minimal enough that they didn’t distract from the play’s action, but substantial enough to indicate a new setting. Lighting designer, Mitchell Sandy, used the lights to illustrate the tone of each scene, for example pairing an angry red with the gathering of the marines for battle. The talent of the band contributed to the atmosphere of the production. They were well led by Beth King, being sympathetic to the cast’s vocals by adjusting their dynamic to suit. The vocals, under the guidance of vocal coach, Mima Chesterfield, were generally strong, gaining greater confidence throughout the performance and dealing with some complex harmonisation.
Exeter University’s Shotgun Theatre have succeeded in creating a production that leads audiences to question who are the real winners and losers of the dogfight. It deals with its conflicting themes of violence and romance through talented acting ability and staging, with strong vocals and musicians contributing to the overall atmosphere of the story.
– Katrina Bennet
Photography and editing by Anne Chafer, Oli Weaver and Emily-Rose Stead.