Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse)

This European premiere production has plenty of style but is lacking substance

It's a regrettable axiom of the musical theatre that big hits spawn pale copies which imitate the style but lack the substance. Les Miserables inspired (if that is the word) Napoleon and La Cava. Mamma Mia! inflicted Tonight's the Night on us. And now Spring Awakening, one of the musicals of the century, has created an errant offspring in the form of Dogfight, currently receiving its European premiere.

Handsomely produced by the Sonia Friedman of the fringe, Danielle Tarento, and energetically performed by its young cast, Dogfight is, alas, melodically bland and dramatically flat. It is a "bunch of American GIs try to get laid and one of them falls in love" kind of show and that's more or less it. The twist is that the romance arises from a distasteful bet among the lads to pick the ugliest girl.

This being an American musical, there's a fair bit of stuff about not judging by appearances (the girl the jarhead falls for is not a waif – although in fairness she's not Tracy Turnblad either so what's the big deal?). The boys ultimately go to war amidst smoke, goboes and sound effects (director Matt Ryan has mounted Les Mis all over the world and allows himself to reference that staging once or twice).

The young cast sock it to us big time. But in Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's '60s-inflected score of B-side riffs and vamps, peppered with glissandos and growling guitars, only three songs really hold any interest across the two hours. (One of these has a near-identical chord sequence to the equivalent sex scene in Spring Awakening.) Ryan keeps things moving fluidly on the tiny stage, but there is just not enough creative invention to offset the paucity of dramatic action offered by Peter Duchan's book.

The show is distinguished by the strength of the two leads. Jamie Muscato is a compelling leading man who sings thrillingly in his closing battlefield equivalent of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables". And in Laura Jane Matthewson – astonishingly making her professional debut – he has a terrific leading lady with a great voice and an instinct for playing the part truthfully. But what hope does she have when at one point she has to say "People are so cruel" with an echo effect on her voice, a solo piano playing beneath her, and a teddy bear in her arms?

The ensemble get much less of a chance to shine. But amongst the supporting cast, Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy the prostitute stands out with a great voice which makes the title song a thrill of vocal gymnastics from her and Matthewson. She also gets one of the show's best gags: A marine asks if she's from around here; "What do you care? You're not coming over."

Some people may love this, and many of them were at the press night (one sassy line in a restaurant scene drew woops and applause like an American talkshow). But, at least for me, despite the love and attention bestowed by its cast and team, this is a dog with plenty of bark but no bite.