Review: Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Marking the centenary of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end, Proud Haddock’s excellent revival of Billy Bishop Goes to War is a fitting tribute to all those who risked – and in many cases, gave – their lives in combat. The show tells the remarkable true story of WWI pilot Billy Bishop, who was credited as the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war with 72 victories to his name. But don’t be fooled; despite first appearances, some very jolly tunes and the show’s Enid Blyton-esque title, as the evening goes on there’s a mounting sense of anger and dismay at the utter pointlessness and waste of both this particular conflict, and war in general.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

It all begins cheerfully enough; 20-year-old Billy Bishop enlists in 1914 and leaves his home in Owen Sound, Ontario, eager to have a laugh and kill some Germans. A year later, he joins the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, and helped along by the patronage of London socialite Lady St Helier, a year after that he trains as a pilot and takes triumphantly to the skies, machine gun in hand. But though Billy’s skill and courage earn him medals, promotions and international acclaim, after a while the thrill of shooting down the enemy – however successfully – can no longer quite compensate for the loss of countless friends, the longing for home, or the dawning realisation that the lives he’s taking might be more than just numbers on a scoreboard.

The two-hander, directed by Jimmy Walters, is performed brilliantly by Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish, who play the younger and older Billy, and who complement each other perfectly. Aitken takes centre stage (and beyond) as the charismatic young pilot, quickly establishing a rapport with the audience and unafraid to bear his soul in the play’s darker moments. Beamish, meanwhile, is a steadier, more reflective presence, who keeps out of the way and spends the majority of the play tucked quietly behind a piano.

Both men also play a number of other parts, often to hilarious effect: among them Billy’s patron Lady St Helier, her snooty butler Cedric, and the various officers and dignitaries who have no qualms about placing their men in harm’s way, or using them as figureheads when the occasion suits. It’s at these moments that we’re reminded most forcibly that Billy – like so many others – was not a British soldier, but a Canadian dragged into another nation’s war, only to be manipulated shamelessly by those who considered themselves superior but who weren’t willing to step up and pay the price they expected of others.

Just as the actors show us two sides of the same man, so Daisy Blower’s set cleverly toes the line between a WWI bunker and a 1950s man-cave, so that like Billy himself, we feel we’re simultaneously in two different time zones. The level of detail in the set is astonishing and the overall effect – enhanced further by light (Arnim Friess) and sound design (Dinah Mullen) – is visually stunning, with so much to look at that it almost feels more than one visit is needed to take it all in.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most popular play in Canadian theatrical history, and it’s not hard to see why. The show certainly doesn’t glorify war, but it does celebrate heroism, in particular that of a young man willing to risk everything for someone else’s country. Despite all that he did for us, few Brits in 2018 have even heard of Billy Bishop – and for that reason alone, the play deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Fortunately, the quality of the production more than lives up to the importance of the story it’s telling; beautifully performed, designed and directed, this timely revival is a must-see.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th November.

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Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

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Review: Mad as Hell at Jermyn Street Theatre

In 1977, Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his career-defining appearance in Network. His award was accepted, at the insistence of the film’s writer Paddy Chayefsky, by his third wife, Eletha Finch. Despite the couple’s twelve-year relationship, a Google search reveals hardly any information about Eletha or their life together.

Adrian Hope and Cassie McFarlane aim to put that right in Mad as Hell, which charts the story of Peter and Eletha from their first encounter in a bar in Jamaica. By this time, Finch was already no stranger to scandal, and was in the throes of a messy divorce from his second wife following a well-publicised affair with Shirley Bassey. But despite its personal success, his final marriage to Eletha – who was black, illegitimate and from a working class family – proved even harder for Hollywood to swallow, a fact that enraged Finch until the day he died, and directly influenced his Oscar-winning turn as “mad as hell” newsreader Howard Beale.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

Stephen Hogan gives a charismatic performance as Finch, full of impotent fury and incomprehension at the refusal of society to see beyond the colour of his wife’s skin. His exchanges with Alexandra Mardell, who plays his former lover Debbie, are particularly interesting and reveal that racism isn’t simply a case of black and white; as a Liverpool-born black woman, Debbie looks down her nose at Eletha, just as Eletha later expresses disdain for Bob Marley.

But it’s Vanessa Donovan who steals the show as Eletha; proud, determined and fiercely loyal, she’s not afraid to go after what she wants, and she stands by her man through thick and thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s always likeable, or that we agree with everything she says or does – but her devotion to her husband, and her unwavering dignity in the face of a community that believes her unworthy to be at his side, are inspiring to watch.

Photo credit: Eddie Otchere

The play covers twelve years in a number of relatively short scenes that us from the sunshine of Jamaica to the grey drizzle of London (with a short stop in Switzerland for good measure). With the set itself unchanged, each new location is identified by a quick rearrangement of the furniture, with light and sound design from Tim Mascall and David Beckham to help pinpoint where in the world we are. Despite the number of scene changes and an interval, the pace of the production is brisk and doesn’t lose momentum, holding our attention throughout and ending with the Oscars speech that Eletha might well have wished she could make.

Mad as Hell may be our only chance to discover the story of Eletha Finch; she certainly doesn’t get much credit anywhere else for her important role in her husband’s life and career. No doubt Hollywood would have been proud of “allowing” her on to the stage that night in 1977, when really it should have been asking, as Paddy Chayefsky did, why she wasn’t the first choice. Equally, we could look back at Eletha’s story and feel smug at the progress we’ve made since then – or we could use it as inspiration to address all the work still to do.

Mad as Hell is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th February.

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Review: Woman Before a Glass at Jermyn Street Theatre

Lanie Robertson’s Woman Before A Glass is an apt choice to kick off the Scandal Season at Jermyn Street Theatre. Starring Judy Rosenblatt in an impressive solo performance, the play explores the eventful life and times of Peggy Guggenheim, the loyal patron of contemporary art, whose collection – which includes the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky and Pollock – can still be visited to this day at the palazzo in Venice in which she lived, and where the play is set.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

We join Peggy in the 1960s as she’s trying to find a gallery to whom she can leave her collection of works – her “children” as she calls them – and reflecting on a life of sorrow, scandal and lots of sex. A frantic search for something to wear for a TV interview rapidly turns into one long name drop, which is perhaps not surprising from the woman who married Max Ernst, had an affair with Samuel Beckett, and was an early champion of Jackson Pollock. She tells us about her sexual conquests – including the married ones – without shame or embarrassment, and remembers wistfully the one man she really loved, British literary critic John Ferrar Holms. Her grief over his sudden death decades earlier still feels fresh and raw, and gives us an early glimpse behind the brash socialite facade.

As the play goes on, this veneer cracks more and more often, with Peggy recalling the death of her adored father on the Titanic, and later the loss of her sister in childbirth. We see too her hopes and fears for her daughter Pegeen, a troubled artist who – for better or worse – carries the full weight of her mother’s expectation on her shoulders (her brother Sindbad having been written off long ago). The unspoken rivalry between Peggy’s relationship with her so-called “children” – her art – and her actual offspring lies at the heart of the play; her courageous and unwavering loyalty to her work is admirable, but may well come at a personal cost.

Judy Rosenblatt reprises her role in Tom McClane-Williamson’s revival of the New York production directed by Austin Pendleton. In a dynamic and multi-faceted performance, she gives us an insight into the complexity of this remarkable historical figure, holding nothing back whether in moments of triumph or despair. “Il mio palazzo è il tuo palazzo,” she says more than once, gesturing around at Erika Rodriguez’s stylish, minimalist set – and it really does feel that way, such is the intimate, confiding nature of Rosenblatt’s delivery.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Of course, not all Peggy’s revelations paint her in a good light – like her fondness for other people’s husbands, the way she dismisses her son and smothers her daughter, and her unwillingness to give the maid a day off to visit a new grandchild – but there’s no denying hers is a fascinating story that makes for an absorbing 90 minutes. And while we may not like everything we see, as Peggy herself showed us, that doesn’t make it any less worth seeing.

Woman Before A Glass is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd February.

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Review: Anything That Flies at Jermyn Street Theatre

When we hear the word “refugee”, there’s a certain picture that comes to mind – and it’s fair to say Otto Huberman, the elderly man in Judith Burnley’s new play Anything That Flies, is as far from that picture as you can get. 50 years after the Holocaust killed his family, he’s living in a nice flat in Belsize Park, having made his name and a comfortable living from inventing – among other things – a popular brand of speaker. After he suffers a mild stroke, his concerned daughter engages her friend Lottie to come and take care of him, much to his disgust. Not only is he fiercely independent, he also objects to Lottie’s heritage as a member of an aristocratic German family – but it turns out she has a tragic history of her own, and the two may have more in common than Otto thinks.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Otto’s cantankerousness allows for plenty of humorous moments, and the developing understanding and affection between the two characters is certainly heartwarming. More than anything, though, the play is a quietly devastating portrayal of traumatic loss – of family, friends and country – and its lasting impact over five decades. What the play does particularly well is to challenge assumptions: the idea, for instance, that anyone who wasn’t Jewish in 1940s Germany couldn’t possibly have suffered, or that a refugee who makes it to a safe (or, to use Otto’s word, sane) haven, their problems are somehow immediately at an end.

The production, directed by Alice Hamilton, also succeeds on a personal level, with two beautiful performances from Clive Merrison and Issy van Randwyck. Otto is an old man, increasingly frail and confused after his stroke, and Clive Merrison captures his volatility to perfection. He’s simultaneously proud and intellectual, rude and wildly inappropriate, frightened and haunted by loss – and any one of these personality traits can come out at any given moment.

As Lottie, Issy van Randwyck bears it all stoically, refusing to rise to her patient’s bait, though clearly troubled by both his repeated labelling of her as a Nazi and his growing physical and mental vulnerability. She’s a classy, intelligent woman, and like her we find ourselves wondering how she ended up on her hands and knees cleaning up an old man’s latest bathroom emergency; it’s only later that we come to understand she’s repaying a debt for an imagined crime committed in her childhood.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Emily Adamson and Neil Irish’s living room set fits perfectly in the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre, with realistic light and sound from Elliot Griggs and Max Pappenheim. In fact, the production is relentlessly spot on in its attention to detail; the above mentioned bathroom emergency, for instance, leaves little to the imagination, and even before Otto seemingly breaks the fourth wall to relive the night his family was taken (a horrifying story that finally explains the play’s title), we feel included and completely at home in his flat.

Anything That Flies is on the surface a touching story about two very different people finding some common ground. But beneath that surface is something far darker, an exploration of the nature of loss on multiple levels – and it’s here that the play really makes an impact. This well-crafted production of a powerful new play is definitely worth a visit.


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