Culture, London, South, Theatre, Theatre

Theatre Thought: Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse

There’s been a bit of an online hullabaloo about this one. For those who haven’t made it down to see Danielle Tarento’s latest triumph at Southwark Playhouse, a presentation of Pasek and Paul’s Dogfight, based on the 1991 River Phoenix film, let me explain. Most of the reviews praise the show for being performed by its young cast with absolute guts and gusto, say how pleasant and melodic the score is and commend Matt Ryan’s simple and effective staging.


So far so good right? However, what has seemed to get on the wick of most reviewers is the subject matter. In 1963 a group of young marine recruits have a final night out  before being shipped to Vietnam. But On The Town this ain’t. The marines prepare themselves that evening for a Dogfight. Each is challenged to find the ugliest girl he can and bring her to the dance, whereupon the gang will judge them and the chap with most disgusting date wins the prize money.

Horrid, isn’t it? The show has been under fire for being inherently misogynist, indeed Mark Shenton pulled out two such indignant retorts on his blog, citing Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard who claimed the piece was “A great bleeding chunk of Vietnam-era misogyny”, and Jane Shilling in the Telegraph who described the show as a “cheerily uncritical depiction of hateful misogyny.”

So, I read the reviews, raised my eyebrows, and trundled down to see the show, fully prepared to rage and rail against the hateful portrayal of women.

And yet, it never came. All the things the reviewers had been praising were all there- great young cast (Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose in particular broke my heart), swell staging and a nice enough score (though in parts a bit like a Spring Awakening cast off).

So where was this terrible treatment of women everyone had been banging on about? Sure enough, halfway through Act One, the marines all turn up at the dance with  their ‘dogs’, eager to see who will snare the prize, which makes for a bit of uncomfortable viewing. No-one will argue when they discuss how, as a tradition,  this is a vile practice, but the way in which the writing and performances deal with it leave no doubt as to who ends up really winning- it is the women.

The blokes are portrayed as emotionally stunted young boys, all secretly shitting themselves about being sent overseas, and can find no way to deal with the fear except to engage in a spot of willy-waggling to prove their own bravado. They’re not sympathetic characters. They’re rude, aggressive, cruel and a bit sad really. And at one point they even get a bit ‘rapey’, which you know, REALLY endears them to the audience. And the chicas? Well, they’re intelligent, creative, strong, brave, independent and supportive. In fact, it made me rejoice in parts and go YES WOMEN YOU ARE LEGENDS! Aside from  that, as opposed to the majority of the critics, my response to the show felt a lot more personal. And I’ll tell you for why.

The other issue is of course, that they are all supposed to be utter munters. (They’re not, just FYI). And golly, how would one go about casting actresses to play those parts? Isn’t that a bit awkward?! Well, Rebecca Trehearn, one of the shows cast members, commented on her blog that the author’s note in the text merely states, ‘the only requirement is that the audience not identify the women chosen as conventionally attractive within the context of 1963 America’. That’s an interesting term, ‘conventionally attractive.’  Is that the same as when magazines say they want to feature ‘real women’, as opposed to all those pretend women that they’re showing otherwise?  Rose, the leading lady is a shy, awkward coffee-shop waitress, dreaming of making it as a singer. She’s not tall, leggy, big of bust or blonde of hair. She looks normal. Well, whatever ‘normal’ means anyway. And how ground-breaking for an artistic medium to portray a man who is able to fall in love with someone who is not ‘conventionally attractive’. How big and noble of him! It really shouldn’t be as shocking as it’s being made out to be, ‘real women’ need love too after all, but of course in a world where female body image and what it should and shouldn’t be is bombarded upon us at every twist and turn, it is actually a pretty big deal to see a girl not deemed ‘conventionally attractive’ fall in love and be loved back.  I should know, because I’m not deemed as ‘conventionally attractive’ either.

Actors are more aware of what they look like than most others. We have to be, simply because so much of what is cast is based on looks. I’m automatically classed as a ‘character actress’ because I’ve dared to live my life as a woman who wears a size 14-16 and I have short legs and chubby cheeks. Well, that and the fact I can belt my tits off.  I’m not an idiot, I KNOW I’m not ‘conventionally attractive’, mainly because I will never get seen for cruise auditions and I’m not skinny enough to work for a lot of promo agencies (such a shame, I would’ve loved to have draped myself over a car wearing hotpants at Earls Court…). But you know, eh, so what? I can make people laugh and I’m quite kind to people too. AND MY THIGHS WOBBLE. I’ve written before about how much of a thick skin one must have as an actor, you really honestly genuinely  do get put up for jobs that openly call you things like ‘Big Girl’, ‘Ugly Man’ and (still my favourite) ‘Chubby Twentysomething’. We’re not making that shit up. And whilst it’s not exactly music to my ears to be described like that, you do get used to it. But let’s be honest, playing a witch is always going to be more fun than playing a princess. I doubt very much that the apparently delicate, fragile feelings of the actresses playing these bright, brilliant women that reviewers are concerned about are going to be damaged.

As appalled as everyone is by the Dogfight, I have to put it out there that it does still happen. Oh yes my friends, on a night out once I was unknowingly part of something called ‘Whale-Baiting’, which essentially is the same thing as Dogfighting but the kudos goes to the lad who can pull the fattest chick. Which felt super. Oh no wait, I’m wrong, it felt utterly horrible. And some still argue that we don’t need feminism. Ha ha ha. Having been part of such a self-esteem bashing scenario myself, I felt a real kindred spirit to the women in this show and how they dealt with the crashing images of themselves that the world seemed to be pressing down on them. I left feeling like I’d been hugged by a warm and witty group of gals going, “Yes mate, we get it. We understand.” The ladies win. And you know, all the singing is wonderful in it too, so that’s jolly good.

SO YES those are all my messy, tangly thoughts about Dogfight and it’s criticisms. Ooh isn’t it good when a show sparks debate?! It’s on until Saturday, tickets are still available. Go see what all the noise is about, I URGE you, and then tell me all about it.


Dogfight runs at Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 13th September

Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway

Tel: 0207 4070234
Twitter: @swkplay


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