Billy Bishop Goes to War – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Writer: John Gray with Eric Peterson
Director: Jimmy Walters

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Of all the plays being revived to mark the centenary of the World War I Armistice, a not unsurprising number have focussed on the lives of soldiers in the trenches. But April 1918also saw the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force: so Jermyn Street Theatre’s revival of a musical about a Canadian fighter pilot is especially apt.

Billy Bishop Goes to Waris facing its own anniversary, having been first performed 40 years ago in November 1978by John McLachlan Gray and his collaborator, the actor Eric Peterson. Telling the story of the real-life Billy Bishop, a young Canadian cavalryman who transferred to the fledgeling Royal Flying Corps and rose to become its hero, this two-hander chamber musical requires two actors to play eighteen roles between them.

Principal among these is Bishop himself: both as an older man reminiscing about his life, in the shape of Oliver Beamish, and then more generally by Charles Aitken as the brash, younger Bishop. The transition from callow, partying cavalryman to one of World War I’s poster boys is charted with compassion and humour. Designer Daisy Blower’s set suggests a room filled by the older Bishop with memorabilia from his life in two world wars: but it is also symbolic of a man lost in his own memories, reliving past glories while having to face up to some of the horrors along the way.

Aitken’s Bishop is warm, bright, funny and a little bit cocky: every inch the flying ace template. And yet his origins belie his legend: a cavalier risk-taker who loves the bottle, who saw the appeal of the flying machines primarily as a way of escaping the mud of his British training base.

Beamish’s take, of a Bishop nearing the end of his life, is more contemplative and measured: over the course of the play’s two hours, Gray’s script nudges the younger Bishop in that direction. An emergency landing near the front line exposes Bishop to the horrors of war: and while his delight at ratcheting up the number of German planes he shoots down is palpable, it is the moments of realisation that truly hit home. Principal among these are a poetic tribute to fellow flying ace Albert Ball, as well as the description of a dogfight after which Bishop saw the German pilot and navigator plummet to the ground as they fell out of their disintegrating craft.

The show’s original songs have the patina of the era on them, played and sung with sensitivity by Beamish and Aitken. Capturing the sense of adventure fo the young Bishop, and the lifetime of memories of his older self, the resultant show is a well crafted, moving memoir of a remarkable life.
Runs until November 24 2018 | Image: Robert Workman

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