2018 is, as I’m sure most people know, the centenary of the end of the First World War. It is also the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force. This is, therefore, a wonderful time for the Jermyn Street Theatre to be staging a tale of one of the most famous WWI fighter aces as they present another show in their Rebels season with a production of Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Billy Bishop (Oliver Beamish) is wandering around his, what we would call today, man-cave. It is a room full of memories and Billy is in a mood to share them. He tells the audience his story. Starting with his, very undistinguished, time at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario, we follow young Billy (Charles Aitken) as the First World War starts and he receives his commission in the Mississauga Horse Cavalry Regiment. His posting to England for a period of training, and his realisation that, if he is going to have to take part in the war, he would like to do so in a more civilised way – in a flying machine, high above the mud, with a view over ‘no man’s land’ rather than running across it. As Billy gets his wish – well sort of – we stay with him and learn about his war and how he changed from a young, rather reckless boy from Owen Sound, to becoming the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war.
I’m going to start here with the set. I entered the auditorium and was literally breathless as I was confronted by a room full of memories and ghosts from Billy’s life. No detail was missed out or out of place and there was so much to look at, I was glad I had arrived early. Daisy Blower has done a fantastic job, not just with the set but also the authentic WW1 costumes and created the perfect place for Billy’s story to be told.
And what a story it is. Billy is pretty much the ultimate anti-hero, who decides he doesn’t want to suffer the deprivations of war in a conventional manner and, thanks to some powerful friends, falls into what he believes will be a more gentlemanly way to fight for the mother country. The fact that he does really well at this is, in some more attributable to skill rather than judgement. There were times when I did wonder if Billy had a bit of a death wish, given some of the risks he took but, the reality seems to be more, he just loved life and wanted to enjoy the war on his own terms. The writing is first rate and told in a non-judgemental way which is to the credit of John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson who could easily have come down in a very biased way about war and the people that take part in it. The songs, rather like in ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ have a very authentic 14-18 feel to them and my favourite moment of all was the wonderful eulogy Billy gives to fellow ace Albert Ball, which is incredibly moving.
Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish work exceptionally well as the younger and older Billy – along with the various other characters Billy interacts with. Both of them have fine voices and accents and, I have to say Oliver’s rather snooty butler to Lady St. Helie, is wonderfully observed and his looks at the rather crass Billy would be worthy of Downton’s Carlton at his finest. Both actors have very complementary singing voices and deliver both the songs and dialogue in a very naturalistic way. Jimmy Walters direction is deft and really makes the most of the set and the story.
Despite having served in the RAF, I had never heard of Billy Bishop before. Mind you, he was RFC so maybe that’s why they don’t teach him in basic training. Having said that, I really felt by the end of Billy Bishop Goes to War I had really learned about this amazing man who was such a large part of the first world war and the formation of the Royal Canadian Air Force. There were some fascinating moments in the show where I was quite surprised about the history of the involvement of the British Empire in what was basically a European war. It’s strange that this side of WWI isn’t really talked about, but thanks to Billy Bishop Goes to War at least one of the ‘colonials’ will be acknowledged and remembered.
Review by Terry Eastham
Coinciding with the centenary of the end of World War I, Proud Haddock are reviving Billy Bishop Goes To War as part of their War Season and Jermyn Street Theatre’s Rebels Season. This striking drama is based upon the true story of young Billy Bishop, a failing military college student who became Canada’s indomitable flying ace, the most successful pilot of his generation.
In 1914, Billy Bishop, aged only 20, signed up to fight in the Great War. A failing and bullied student, he overcame intense prejudice and astonishing danger to receive his wings and become the top fighter pilot. Through a combination of bravery and sheer luck, Billy was able to find his place and prove his worth. He became a true Canadian hero.
Brought to life with songs of the period, Billy Bishop Goes To War vividly transports the audience across the landscape of World War I, from the thick mud of No Man’s Land to the drawing rooms of the British aristocracy. This compelling and darkly comic drama interrogates the nature of heroism and its cost while shining a light on the often-neglected complexities of Britain’s colonial past during the War.
Director Jimmy Walters
Designer Daisy Blower
Lighting Designer Arnim Friess
Sound Designer Dinah Mullen
Musical Director Adam Gerber
Billy Bishop – Charles Aitken
Older Billy Bishop – Oliver Beamish
Billy Bishop Goes To War
Performance Dates Wednesday 31st October – Saturday 24th November 2018
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes including interval
Age Guidance 16+
Twitter @JSTheatre, @proudhaddock, #JSTBillyBishop
Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST