It’s 1963 and Eddie Birdlace has one more night before him and his fellow marine buddies (Bernstein and Boland – the three bees) ship out to the Vietnam war. Full of the certainty of their invincibility and the promise of a hero’s return, the marines spend their night partaking in a long honoured tradition: the dogfight. A simple premise. Each marine puts in fifty bucks. They throw a party. The marine who can bring the ugliest date wins the leftover money. When Eddie meets Rose he is sure he has found the perfect girl for the dogfight, but he doesn’t bargain for what comes next.
At its heart this is a love story but it is also investigates toxic masculinity. The marines have only had thirteen weeks training, and can’t be more than nineteen years old. They are vessels of a violent and ugly misogyny, but at the same time they are no more than boys, naive and vulnerable, in no way ready to face war. In heartbreaking juxtaposition, Rose is a breath of fresh air to the stage, intelligent, interesting and ultimately kind.
The performers are all members of the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible training and performance opportunities to young people under the age of twenty three. And what a cast they are. Across the board they are full of energy and conviction, and there isn’t a weak link onstage. Our leading pair played by Stephen Lewis-Johnson and Claire Keenan in this performance – two casts alternate – are brilliant. Keenan is particularly compelling, funny and genuine, immediately likeable. She is utterly engaging to watch. Her and Lewis-Johnson are in turn lovely together, and both vocally really strong. Lewis-Johnson’s lonely return from Vietnam is an undeniably powerful end to the show which he delivers with the full emotional punch it deserves.
The band are faultless. It’s a fantastic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (both music and lyrics) that they handle with accomplishment and ease.
The set by Dean Johnson and Andrew Exeter is simple but effective. The band, lit by warm lamps are at the back of the stage and the different settings are created by wooden crates. A particularly lovely moment sees light bulbs suspended by cast members to create street lamps around Eddie and Rose on their first date.
This a brilliant and nuanced musical that is delivered by an incredibly talented cast and band.
“The dialogue is nimble, often hilarious, and the characters are full of sympathy even at their most bitter”
In cold weather hedgehogs huddle together for warmth, but find that in doing so, they invariably pierce each other with their spines. This is the premise of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Hedgehog’s Dilemma”, his bleak, allegorical musing on the nature of human intimacy, and, if you can believe such a thing, it is the subject of a new light-hearted take on modern romance by Blueleaf Theatre.
James P. Mannion’s sprightly piece revolves around a couple in a five-year relationship, drawn together by a shared intelligence and sharp senses of humour, driven apart by their many differences, the barbs with which they end up harming one another. Over a venomous 24-hour period, the failure of each to live up to the standards of the other rips the two apart.
Mannion skilfully captures the sense of opposition, the mysterious way in which two people might at the same time attract and repel. The dialogue is nimble, often hilarious, and the characters are full of sympathy even at their most bitter. He wastes no time in cutting to the action; after a brief prologue in which we witness the relationship blossoming for the first time, we quickly fast forward to its breakdown. Unfortunately, this sharp change in mood threatens to unsaddle the piece; from this point forth the register is one of constant conflict, making the opening feel arbitrary and at times leaving the play rather paceless. Moreover, fragments of Schopenhauer’s dilemma are pushed explicitly – and often rather awkwardly – into the narrative as she is a doctoral student for whom the philosopher is the subject of a thesis. The allegory is explicitly linked by the characters to the situation they find themselves in, and when this does happen, Mannion’s otherwise organic writing begins to feel didactic.
The charming performances of the leads quickly clear up such worries, however. Rebecca Bailey and David Shields find a great deal of humour in their characters, but crucially they know when to shift gear, exposing the pain beneath. Their warmth endears them to us, even as they drive each other away. Set entirely in the front room of their flat, the intimate, book-strewn space mirrors the mix of comfort and claustrophobia that exists between the pair.
Philosophy and drama have had a long a varied rapport themselves, as have philosophy and comedy. Hedgehogs & Porcupines plays with both relationships, and though at times it might lack bite, its enduring good nature finds much insight and enjoyment.