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.

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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.

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Review: Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Fun fact to remember for future pub quizzes: George Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair. This is just one of the things to be learnt about the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell at the Old Red Lion. The play, directed by Jimmy Walters, charts the final months of Orwell’s life following the publication of 1984. Admitted to University College Hospital suffering from tuberculosis, a fragile George proposes to young, glamorous magazine editor Sonia Brownell, who goes on to become the second Mrs Orwell. Cox examines their relationship and the motivations of each party in this fascinating and moving new play, which also touches on Orwell’s politics, his guilt over the death of his first wife Eileen, and the universal need to be remembered after we’re gone.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Despite its title, the play is just as much the story of Mr Orwell as that of his wife, and Peter Hamilton Dyer absolutely commands the stage for almost the entirety of the evening. A hunched, pathetic figure in clothes that are far too big for him, racked by ill health and desperately lonely and afraid, it’s tragically clear that his wits are still as sharp as ever, and he longs to believe he has at least three more novels in him. George loves Sonia without hope or agenda, knowing full well her heart belongs to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his simple joy in just being around her is devastatingly well played by Hamilton Dyer.

As his new wife, Cressida Bonas is equally compelling. Clipped, efficient and often impatient, she also demonstrates an obvious affection for George that makes it difficult to work out Sonia’s true motivation. While she certainly seems swayed by the suggestion that she could benefit financially from the marriage, her grief when she learns of his death and her desire to honour his final wishes appear genuine and heartfelt. She’s not a particularly likeable character in the story – all our sympathy is spent on the vulnerable figure of Orwell himself – but at the same time, she’s not a villain of the piece either, and we find ourselves admiring her sacrifice whilst still questioning her motives.

A brilliant cast is completed by Rosie Ede as Orwell’s no-nonsense nurse, Robert Stocks as his fiercely loyal publisher Fred Warburg, and Edmund Digby Jones in a particularly intriguing performance as Lucian Freud. His scenes with Bonas are marked by a simmering sexual tension, while with her husband he’s relaxed and humorously frank about his own and others’ shortcomings. (In fact the play in general is surprisingly funny, considering it’s a story about a dying man.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
The majority of the action takes place in George’s hospital room, though some conversations are held in the corridor behind, amplified for our benefit and with the actors visible through the bedroom windows. This presents a slight confusion, because it isn’t made clear if these discussions can also be heard inside the room – perhaps this isn’t hugely significant given that George is always fully aware of Sonia’s romantic indifference to him, but it’s a minor frustration in an otherwise excellent production.

Cox delights in name-dropping famous writers and artists throughout as a way of reminding us that the play’s based on true events: Picasso, Dalí, Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer all get a mention. Even so, you don’t need to know much – or anything at all, really – about Orwell or his work to enjoy this very human story of love, fear and hope. Beautifully performed with warmth and humour, Mrs Orwell is a fascinating and entertaining insight into the life and death of a legend.

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Review: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre

Proud Haddock’s production of The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus opens in Egypt in 1907, where two archaeologists and a team of local men are sifting through scraps of ancient papyrus. It’s an appropriate introduction to Tony Harrison’s 1988 play, which has itself been unearthed and given new life nearly 30 years after its last London performance.

Grenfell and Hunt (Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves) are academics searching for a lost satyr play by Sophocles. Dismayed at their lack of success – all they seem to find is endless petitions for help from the dispossessed – Grenfell grows increasingly obsessive, and Hunt starts to worry about him… with good reason, as it turns out. Before we quite know what’s happening, Grenfell’s been possessed by the god Apollo, while Hunt’s transformed into Silenus, and (with a bit of audience participation) dramatically released his band of dancing satyrs.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

From here, the story takes us to ancient Greece and into the lost play, Ichneutae, where Apollo charges the satyrs with tracking down his lost cattle, only for them to discover instead something far more valuable to him. And finally, we’re whisked off to London’s South Bank in 2016, where the effects of that discovery are still being felt – but not necessarily in a good way.

Believe it or not, all of this happens in 75 minutes. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a whirlwind of a production that’s barely contained by the Finborough’s tiny stage, and allows very little time to process what’s going on – yet still somehow manages to remain accessible to those of us without a degree in ancient Greek literature. Don’t get me wrong, the story is completely bonkers, and there are certainly a good few moments where we’re left wondering what on earth just happened (the sudden appearance of Hermes the man-baby would be a good example). But it all comes together in the end, with a powerful message not only about the dichotomy between high and low art, but more broadly about the divide between rich and poor, and a direct appeal to the audience which challenges us to examine our own attitudes. (That said, the perfectionist in me would have welcomed a chance to circle back to the beginning of the story, if only to find out what happened to Grenfell and Hunt.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves lead the cast with strong performances, handling with ease Harrison’s rhyming verse. Purbeck particularly excels during a wild-eyed transformation from Grenfell to Apollo, his head snapping back and forth as the two personas war against each other. Glaves’ key moment comes late in the play, but is worth waiting for; as Silenus, he recounts movingly the flaying of his brother satyr Marsyas, who was punished by Apollo for having the temerity to become an accomplished flute player. But perhaps most memorable – for reasons that become obvious (costume designer Vari Gardner, take a bow) – are the satyrs, played by Dylan Mason, James Rigby, Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dannie Pye and Adam Small. Energetic and irreverent, they stomp, dance and joke their way through the middle section of the play… yet this story is not destined to end happily, and their 21st century incarnations channel their energy in much darker ways.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a decidedly odd play, entertaining and tragic in equal measure. Jimmy Walters’ production could at times move a little more slowly, and could certainly benefit from a slightly bigger stage – but given the nature of the play and its message, a small theatre, in which audience and artists are within touching distance, feels like an appropriate setting for the rediscovery of this little-known work.

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Interview: Jimmy Walters, The Trackers of Oxyrynchus

Following his acclaimed production of John Osborne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern, director Jimmy Walters returns to the Finborough Theatre in January with Tony The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Tony Harrison. Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves star in the play’s first London staging for nearly 30 years as Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two archaeologists sent to Egypt to dig up lost poetry and plays, who end up becoming part of a story they’ve discovered.

“It was a whole new challenge with this project,” explains Jimmy. “I thought, do I want to do the same thing again or do I want to make apples and oranges? I think if you constantly put yourself outside of your comfort zone then that’s a much more exciting place to be.”

Photo credit: Robert Boulton
Photo credit: Robert Boulton

Despite the weighty title, audiences won’t need an in-depth knowledge of Greek literature to appreciate the play: “It helps to know that the satyr play was staged deliberately after three tragedies in order to lighten the mood of the evening, and that satyrs are half man half goat creatures with large penises. Other than that you can just be entertained and learn a lot, which is great. I would say that this is not a dense academic play, despite the long title. It’s completely accessible with some laugh out loud moments put up against some real poignancy. This is our most entertaining play we’ve done yet but also the most powerful. Hands down.”

This is not the first play Jimmy’s directed that hasn’t been performed for many years; he co-founded his company, Proud Haddock, to celebrate unearthed stories from classical playwrights. What’s the appeal of unearthing these buried treasures? “I think it’s that great thing of taking a playwright who’s loved by many and unearthing a story of theirs people don’t know very well. If you just perform the classics then it becomes more about people wondering how you are going to approach each scene. ‘I wonder how they’ll do the balcony scene’, and everyone pre-empts ‘to be or not to be’. To tell a story people aren’t familiar with by someone they regard as a genius has a very strong effect.”

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was originally written for a one-off performance in the ancient stadium of Delphi, and was later seen at the National Theatre. Jimmy believes that the absence of any other recent adaptations makes his job as director easier: “It’s why if you talk to actors who play roles other actors have played before, they try and avoid watching their performances. It narrows your choices and you can run the risk of imitating. Also, if I had access to lots of adaptations I’d probably freak myself out and put so much pressure on myself. I think at the end of the day it must come from you. Those instincts you have from reading the script are yours and you should just go for it.”


Tony Harrison is an award-winning poet-playwright, who last year won the David Cohen Prize for Literature. What is it that makes his writing so special? “He loves contrast,” says Jimmy. “He’s a poet, so that gives the play a rhythm and the contrasts are everywhere. Contemporary v period, ancient Greek language against modern day slang, high art against low art, rich against poor etc. He doesn’t deal with any grey areas. He makes the familiar strange, and takes things you’re used to hearing in a certain way and turns them on their head. It’s punchy, unapologetic and deeply affecting. You have to be careful with this word because it gets thrown around too often – but he is a genius.”

Although The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus deals with ancient texts, and is set in the early 20th century, it still has plenty to say to modern audiences: “Oh, big time,” Jimmy confirms. “The last section of the play actually takes place in modern day London and with everything that’s happened recently with Brexit and the lack of unity in the country, this couldn’t be more relevant. It could have been written yesterday.”

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is at the Finborough Theatre from 3rd-28th January.