Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
It’s always a pleasure to hear an untold story. In Billy Bishop Goes to War we learn about a baby-faced Canadian teenager who by a string of lucky chances became the world’s most decorated fighter pilot in the early days of single-seater flying over France in 1914-18, and a hero and a mascot for the Royal Canadian Air Force through the second war, too.
You could Google him, but I suggest you don’t as there’s not much else about the play than to tell his curious story with intimate charm.
Set in a convincingly decorated bunker designed in meticulous detail by Daisy Blower, it’s a two-hander with Charles Aitken playing the ardent Canadian and Oliver Beamish as his older, piano-playing self. The pair also impersonates a string of other characters including the Dame Hilda Bracket-ish Lady St Helier, a London socialite and chum of Churchill who pulled strings to advance Bishop’s flying career and launched him in society.
Actually this is one place you can consult Google, if only to see Mary St Helier’s 1896 photograph in which she’s the dead spit of Dame Hilda.
It’s engrossing, but if anything lets the side down, chaps – it’s the songs. Perfectly rendered by Aitken’s vocals and Beamish’s lovely sensitive touch on the piano, they are twee pastiches rather than authentic to the period and have a touch of Tom Lehrer’s ‘So Long Mom, I’m Off to Drop The Bomb’ in the recurring melody. Aitken renders a moving tribute to Britain’s leading flying ace Albert Ball, with 44 victories at the age of only 20 – and the rhythm is patterned on the 1911 music hall standard ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’.
Jimmy Walters’ direction keeps up the pace and energy and makes the most of the all-purpose set. The dialogue is also refreshingly naturalistic, there’s no jingoism or bravado and the history of the Empire servicemen who came to fight for Britain without really knowing why, is simply and sensitively told.