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28 August 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:20pm

Dogfight proves that a famous name is not the only reason to adapt a film for the stage

Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse shows that a musical using an existing film as its springboard is no more or less likely to succeed than an entirely original work. And rightly so.

By Ryan Gilbey

The relationship between cinema and mainstream commercial theatre has for some time resembled a conveyor belt running straight from the multiplex and into the West End or Broadway. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Lion King, Shakespeare in Love, The Commitments, The Bodyguard, Once and Billy Elliot are among those currently playing in London. “I think we might have run out of plays,” Jeremy Sams told me in 2002, shortly before his own adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in the West End. “A famous title is extremely helpful. One theatre in St Louis actually gave its audience a list of film titles and got them to vote on the one they’d most like to see as a musical. They chose White Christmas, and when Cameron Mackintosh did the same thing with his writers, the result was The Witches of Eastwick.

In that sense, Dogfight, now on at the Southwark Playhouse, does not appear to be bucking the trend. It is, after all, based on a film. The difference is that it’s a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have heard of. For once the accusation that a screen-to-stage production has been mounted to lure in the movie audience is entirely groundless. If Dogfight attracted only those who saw it in cinemas, it wouldn’t cover the cast’s boot-polish budget.

Written and directed by Nancy Savoca, Dogfight was released in 1991, though not in the UK; here it went straight to video and then on to undeserved obscurity. But it is a subtle, intimate work that features the best screen performance of its late star, River Phoenix. It is set during the Vietnam war, with Phoenix as a hard-bitten, soft-centred Marine, Eddie Birdlace, who participates with his buddies in a “dogfight”—a contest to see which of them can bring to the dance the ugliest date. Eddie gets his mitts on the smart, winsome Rose (Lili Taylor), an aspiring singer-songwriter who clutches her acoustic guitar as though it were a floatation aid. With her ratty hair, dubious fashion sense and over-earnest conversation, he must be in with a chance. But their evening does not go according to plan.

For a piece I wrote in 2003 on the tenth anniversary of Phoenix’s death, I spoke to Dogfight’s producer, Peter Newman, who recalled working with the star on this uncharacteristic role: “I’d been trying to get Dogfight made for five years,” he told me,

and it came together when Warners fell in love with the script just after River had got his Oscar nomination [for Running on Empty]. They said, ‘We’ll do anything with River.’ I was surprised he wanted to do the film, and I think it was tough initially for him to find the character because it was so different from who he was. We had the drill instructor who had trained the actors on Platoon; he was putting the cast through a week-long boot camp, which River found very difficult. I remember when he showed up on set after they had all got their Marine haircuts, and he had this very cold look in his eyes—he’d been through boot camp, and all of a sudden a bit of that was ingrained in him.

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The film was adapted into a musical (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan) and had its off-Broadway premiere in 2012. The production now playing in London validates the decision to turn the movie into a show. The three-sided staging puts the audience slap-bang in uncomfortably intimate situations—locker-rooms, lonely bedrooms and, most disturbingly, a red-lit boudoir in which a prostitute is coerced by a Marine determined to reverse the rebuttal she has given him.

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All this should work to heighten the squirm-inducing anti-beauty pageant at the play’s centre, but I was disappointed to find the embarrassment quotient much lower than it was on screen. It isn’t that Rose (the gutsy, self-possessed Laura Jane Matthewson) doesn’t suffer, but rather that the play feels so protective of her that it soft-pedals her pain. As in the film, the dogfight itself doesn’t dominate—it’s merely the pretext for Rose and Eddie (Jamie Muscato, deftly balancing vulnerability and brutishness) revealing themselves to one another. But it does need to hurt. And the “dogfight” should operate as some kind of metaphor for the depersonalised horror of war. On stage, this sting is weirdly muted.

It’s still an urgent production with a tightly-drilled ensemble cast. The addition of music isn’t incongruous either. In fact, it doesn’t feel like an addition at all—more like a teasing-out of an element that was always there in the background of the movie. The band, raised above the audience, doubles as the entertainment during the dancehall sequence at the end of Act One, while Rose’s songwriting talent makes sense of her own numbers.

A musical that uses an existing film as its springboard is no more or less likely to succeed than an entirely original work, but it is heartening to find in Dogfight an adaptation that stands on its own merits and cannot bank on the goodwill of an audience’s familiarity. Still, progeny is irrelevant. A show could come from a book, a movie or a series of text messages. Once the curtain falls on opening night, no amount of inherited lustre can hope to insulate it against critical poison or public indifference. Fortunately Dogfight has not been subjected to very much of either.

Dogfight is at the Southwark Playhouse, SE1, until 13 September.