Southwark Playhouse, London – until 6 April 2019
Funny and heartfelt, this true life story of an extraordinary pilot highlights a different perspective of World War I.
So much of what we think about relating to World War I is what was happening to those on the ground and in the trenches – but a forgotten element is those who played their part in the skies, which was just as dangerous. This side of The Great War is explored through the true story of Billy Bishop, the Canadian Pilot who became the most successful flight pilot of his generation.
Taking audiences through his journey from being a rebellious Canadian military college student and overcoming prejudice to become a successful pilot, John Gray’s play beautifully combines music with extraordinary stories to give a real insight into this incredible pilot’s life.
Directed with great sensitivity and humour by Jimmy Walters, this sharp but poignant production shows just how Billy transformed from a rebellious student at the Royal Military College to someone who grew increasingly disillusioned with the war and the number of friends that he lost along the way when he became a pilot. With both Charles Aitken (young Billy Bishop) and Oliver Beamish (older Billy Bishop) having to also play numerous other characters, the production also has great energy and pace – offering up some great characterisations, without ever undermining Bishop’s achievements.
Daisy Blower’s extraordinary treasure trove covered set design, surrounded by variety of objects suggesting that each object has a special significance to Billy Bishop’s life and his memories adds to the reflective nature of the play. Elsewhere, the lighting designed by Arnim Firess is particularly effective during the longer monologues, highlighting the rawness of Billy Bishop’s experiences – as seen in his speech discussing the death of Albert Ball which is especially moving to listen to.
While the production has plenty of humour within, the audience is consistently reminded of the horror of World War I – the descriptions of No Man’s Land and the death of two German pilots, described so vividly stand out. The change in tone of the songs from ‘We Are Off to Fight the Hun’ which is optimistic contrasts with the more sombre numbers in the second act, reflect nicely the sadness and pain that grew the longer the war went on.
But the performances of the cast keep the production lively and engaging – particularly when it comes to some of the more quirky characters they have to play. Charles Aitken as the younger Billy has plenty of charm – particularly when he engages with audience, adding to the intimate feel of the show. But he is also delightful as the domineering Lady St Helier and the Lovely Helene, offering comic relief appropriately. In contrast, Oliver Beamish is equally strong, not only in his performance as older Billy and the dry and pompous Cedric (among the many characters he plays) but his lively accompaniment on the piano is confident and enjoyable.
Billy Bishop Goes to War puts into sharp focus the way in which those who survived World War I felt guilty and angry about them living when so many died. A thoughtful and poignant piece of theatre that thoroughly deserves this transfer from the Jermyn Street Theatre.