Home » London Theatre Reviews » Billy Bishop Goes To War at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Billy Bishop Goes To War at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Charles Aitken (Younger Billy), Oliver Beamish (Older Billy). Credit Nick Rutter.
Charles Aitken (Younger Billy), Oliver Beamish (Older Billy). Credit Nick Rutter.

I fell just a little bit in love with this production as I walked in, Daisy Blower’s set design is wonderful! The tiny performance area, just big enough for the cast of two is crammed with vintage items and topped off with parachutes. Oh, I would love to have helped put this together.

Billy Bishop Goes To War was first performed in Canada in 1978 and is now one of the most widely produced plays in Canadian theatre. Director Jimmy Walters has reworked the play for two actors playing Billy Bishop: Oliver Beamish as the middle-aged Billy and Charles Aitken as his younger self.

Middle-aged Billy opens the play at the piano singing “Were off to fight the hun and it looked like lots of fun“. Then young Billy takes over and tells the story of how a young Canadian School dropout came to be fighting in France in 1915. Billy goes to military college because he can ride and is a good shot, but he gets into trouble, cheats in his exams and is declared the worst student ever, but then war broke out so he is made a cavalry officer!

Billy misses a lot of the action by being ill or injured mostly due to his own careless behaviour. Disgusted by the mud and rain and the ridiculous cavalry charges against machine guns Billy decides he wants to join the Royal Flying Corps as he will be warm and dry. As the upper classes are put off by the casualty statistics anyone can join.

As well as being the older Billy, Oliver Beamish accompanies all the songs and plays the part of the British Officers and haughty Butler with aplomb. His interview with Billy to join the RFC is hilarious. Charles Aitken also plays many parts, both male and female, but there is never any confusion about who they are meant to be. Charles is charming when he is flirting with the audience as both a man and a woman.

This is a very entertaining production but you are also made aware of the cruel randomness of how some young men were slaughtered and others survived. The difference between the young Billy’s sense of self-survival and enjoyment of killing others contrasts with the older Billy reflective sense of guilt at surviving and of having killed so many. The use of music makes a quite heavy subject light and engaging.

4 stars

Review by Sally Knipe

Based on the true story, and brought to life with musical numbers, this ‘poignantly beautiful’ (Libby Purves) production of Billy Bishop Goes to War transfers to Southwark Playhouse from 13 March after a critically acclaimed run at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

Billy Bishop, a failing Canadian military college student, overcomes intense prejudice from British High Command and astonishing danger to become the most successful fighter pilot of his generation. This ‘incredibly moving’ (LondonTheatre1) production interrogates the nature of heroism and its cost while shining a light on the often-neglected complexities of Britain’s colonial past. ‘Charles Aitken shines’ (Entertainment Focus) and ‘Oliver Beamish sparkles’ (The Stage) in this ‘absolutely phenomenal’ (Theatre Box) and ‘captivating’ (Broadway World) production, ‘Skilfully directed’ (Reviewsgate) by Jimmy Walters.

Creative Team
Director – Jimmy Walters
Musical Director – Adam Gerber
Associate Producer – Arsalan Sattari
Designer – Daisy Blower
Lighting Designer – Arnim Friess
Sound Designer – Dinah Mullen
Casting Director – Ginny Schiller

Charles Aitken
Oliver Beamish


Proud Haddock in association with Arsalan Sattari Productions present
Billy Bishop Goes To War
Written and composed by John Gray, in collaboration with Eric Peterson
13 MAR – 6 APR 2019
Start Time 8pm
Matinee Starts 3:30pm
Running Time 130 mins including interval


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