Jermyn Street Theatre, London – 24 November 2018
Britain did not stand alone in WW1. As our hero sings in John MacLachlan Gray’s 1982 play: “South Africa and Canada and Australia to boot/Are saying ‘Mother, here we are! Now tell us who to shoot?”
This 1982 Canadian play is a fascinating sidelight in this centenary week, a biography of one star pilot in that war. It not only takes us above the terrible trenches and into the skies but reminds us of that “Colonial” contribution. Those Anglophone lands lost many sons but in the process gained a new confidence in their future independence. It also reminds us that WW1 began, incredibly, with cavalry charges – Billy came over in a boat full of army horses – but ended with the newest of technology. War moved aloft, in the canvas and prop planes of the Royal Flying Corps. Without parachutes, youthful pilots flew them with an average 11-day survival, and in one model were sent out – for reasons of weight – with only bombs, no guns.
Among them was our hero. Billy Bishop, a callow, rebellious young Canadian who failed his military academy finals by cheating and arrived, seasick and shocked by a voyage through torpedo attacks, as a cavalry officer. Weary of the mud and boredom in camp he looked up to see a plane and discovered that he might manoeuvre himself into a job as an Observer.
Despite daft laddish injuries, a weak heart and being disgraced in training he came good. He trained as a pilot, patronised by Lady St Helier (who had Canadian connections). He won the MC and VC and to his horror was paraded socially before political grandees as a kind of human trophy. He was one of the highest scoring fighter pilots and so valuable as a symbol that he was pulled off duties before the Armistice and sent home because Canadian morale needed encouraging and, unaccountably to the sombre English mind, that young nation preferred its heroes to survive.
It is the well-worn wartime tale of impossibly young men thrown into the desperate exhilaration of war, losing friends daily, impassioned against “the Hun”, but sometimes suddenly softening at the burning realities of death. But it is also a universal portrait of a bad-boy coming good, finding a metier, hurling himself at his talent almost too hard, in and out of drink and depression: almost a rock star story.
Most of the time, in Daisy Blower’s painstakingly detailed set (including a piano for the many atmospheric songs), two men are on stage:Charles Aitken as young Billy, lean and manic, half annoying and half irresistible, shares the narration with Oliver Beamish as his older self , the Air Marshal of the 1950s . Neatly and deftly each becomes other characters: Beamish often authority figures, Aitken at one point almost worryingly convincing as a French bar chanteuse . They meld beautifully, each a part of the other, singing together sometimes.
There is for my taste slightly more evocation of dogfights and of Billy’s remarkable solo raid on a German airfield. But it is brilliantly done, probably necessary. Gray’s writing is often startlingly poetic; the songs – some from the period – vibrate with atmosphere. Early on, the sense of a lonely Canadian’s longing for his own peaceful skies is poignantly beautiful.
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