Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Beautifully directed by Jimmy Walters, Billy Bishop Goes to War offers a new insight into World War I as seen by pilots in the skies.
The more plays based around World War I that I see makes it increasingly clear that although the facts of the war are widely known, it is actually the individual stories that have been uncovered over the years that makes it a deeply fascinating and extraordinary subject matter to focus on.
This is highlighted well in John Gray and Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes To War which tells the story of Billy Bishop’s extraordinary highs and lows as a pilot during WWI, told through the words of his younger self (Charles Aitken) and older self who is looking back at his career and achievements.
Split into two very contrasting halves, the play perfectly captures the change in Billy’s attitude to war the longer it lasts. For example in the first act, he is enthusiastic and passionate about being involved with the war, highlighted by the song ‘We’re Off to Fight the Hun’ that makes the idea of war sound like fun and an adventure.
But this is contrasted with the second act which is more sombre in tone and style, filled with striking moments including when Billy describes the 46th plane that he bought down and seeing the deaths of two enemy fighters right in front of him, capturing the horror and reality of war perfectly.
Directed with great sensitivity and charm by Jimmy Walters, the production successfully highlights the bittersweetness of surviving the war when so many didn’t and Billy’s unwillingness to be called a hero in the light of so many of his colleagues have died fighting for their country. It is also surprisingly lively and each story is well staged, with Oliver Beamish also helping to bring to life a variety of characters such as a high ranking military personnel who applauds and patronises Bishop’s success, while Aitken also shines as the haughty Lady St Helier. By having the pair also act out these additional characters it keeps the pace lively while adding depth and understanding to the story.
With the help of of Daisy Blowers intricate and detailed set design and the atmospheric lighting by Arnim Friess, the audience is fully immersed in a world of memory that is in turn filled with pain and horror – as reflected in Billy’s description of the nightmares he suffered while travelling on the ship Caledonia.
The performances of both Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish are engaging, charming and sincere – even if it would be nice if Beamish had more to do with the story and the way in which it was told, even if there could be a couple of moments when the story is seen from his perspective looking back at it now.
Overall, Billy Bishop Goes to War nicely balances between the idea of the glory and excitement that war initially brought to those who signed up initially without a clue of what they were getting into in contrast to the guilt of those who fought and survived the entire war in contrast to those who fought and died. It highlights perfectly another story of the Great War that deserves to be heard – well worth a watch.
By Emma Clarendon
Billy Bishop Goes to War continues to play at the Jermyn Street Theatre until the 24th November. For more information visit: https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/billy-bishop-goes-to-war/