Southwark Playhouse have built an enviable reputation for their musicals. And in this British premiere, once again produced by Danielle Tarento, producer of the multi-award winning `Titanic’ musical, you can see why.

Based on the 1991 film with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor and with music and lyrics by the new wunderkinds of American musical theatre, Ben Pasek and Justin Paul, Dogfight is endearing, joyful and critical by turns.

It is November, 1963, San Francisco, the night before three young marines are due to deploy in Vietnam. To `celebrate’ their last night, they are about to go out on the town in usual boys’ fashion but to also indulge in a bet as to the ugliest girl they can bring with them.

Cruel in the extreme, Dogfight nonetheless refreshingly can boast a female cast who look like normal, everyday people which gives a fantastic sense of realism and poignancy to a show that starts by apparently indulging military machismo but then proceeds to subtly subvert it.

Pasek and Paul have a happy knack of combining brio with delicacy. Hailed as `heirs to Rogers and Hammerstein’, their style seems to have much more in common with Stephen Sondheim. Songs like `Come to a Party – sung by the young corporal, Eddie Birdlace to Rose, the waitress he’s just picked up at the coffee counter – and Rose’s response, `Nothing Short of Wonderful’, are pure echoes of Sondheim in their spoken and staccato note shifts.

In some senses, Dogfight, follows the conventional form of boys meets girl, boy gets girl. But Peter Duchan’s book also contains surprising twists. After all, Eddie’s brash mates Boland and Bernstein (with Birdlace, they are tattooed with the `three Bs’) are destined for a harsh, and in director Matt Ryan’s tumultuous climax, brutal encounter with war’s reality.

There are some delightful touches, reminiscent of West Side Story in Eddie and Rose’s tender discovery of each other, only marred by the sentimentality of the show’s final moments.

But with its dynamic dance ensembles and inspired lead performances from Jamie Muscato’s appealing Eddie and Laura Jane Matthewson’s genuinely modest Rose, this is a musical beautifully poised between youth and maturity.