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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: One Last Thing (For Now) at the Old Red Lion Theatre

In one of the stories that make up Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now), a British soldier serving in Afghanistan asks his friend: if he didn’t come back, what would be the last words his fiancée at home had heard from him? And would they be enough?

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The power of words – both shared and withheld – is a theme running through the show, which was devised with the company by director Lilac Yosiphon, and brings together stories of lives and loves touched by conflict across the world and across history. An American husband can’t tell his wife the truth about the war and its effect on him. A woman from Colombia struggles to master the English language so she can plead for help for her husband, who’s been kidnapped by FARC guerrillas. A French wife and mother can’t escape the words written to her by a German soldier years before, and a teacher from Israel sets one of her students an assignment that proves to have a surprising significance for them both.

These are just a few of the many plotlines skilfully interwoven throughout the show, each introduced by a different company member and returned to later as each story unfolds and develops. The international nature of the stories requires a range of accents and even languages from the cast of eight (Josephine Arden, Sam Elwin, Carolina Herran, Cole Michaels, Katerina Ntroudi, Tom Shah, Elizabeth Stretton and Thomas Wingfield), and both they and dialect coach Laura Keele deserve a lot of credit for their almost flawless delivery, and easy transitions from one to the next.

And it’s not just accents that change; each cast member takes on more than one significant role in the show, juggling comedy and tragedy with equal skill, but even with no introduction there’d be no problem telling the very different characters apart. It’s hard to choose favourites amongst such a universally talented cast, so I won’t try… and to be honest, several of my personal highlights were the moments the actors formed an ensemble – moving, listening, reacting, even breathing as one. Each of these moments is carefully choreographed and staged for maximum visual impact, with the images that conclude both Acts 1 and 2 most striking.

There’s no set to speak of, though designer Elliott Squire has created a simple yet very effective backdrop made up of blank pages cascading to the floor, and the actors make creative use of a selection of items (a chair, a wooden chest, a trombone…) not to mention their own bodies, to fill in the gaps in each picture to the point where you don’t even notice what’s missing.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Though the play isn’t overtly political, it does have a few pointed comments to make about the impact of war on the individuals involved (both directly and indirectly), and on whether war is ever the answer. But there are moments that hit a little closer to home, too, like the seemingly lighthearted story of a carefree woman whose life has never been touched by conflict, or the harsh, insensitive treatment of an asylum seeker by a British journalist, who hears only what makes a good story and is deaf to her desperate pleas for help.

As in life, some of the stories in One Last Thing (For Now) end happily, others in tragedy. One has a shocking twist; some never conclude at all. There are a lot of distinct threads to this show, but combined they create a memorable and undeniably powerful portrayal of the universal human emotions that hold us all together, even in the worst of times and circumstances. Though not always an easy watch, it’s certainly an important – and recommended – one.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Sam Elwin and Tom Shah, One Last Thing (For Now)

After more than two years in the making, Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now) has its world premiere at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre next month. Conceived by director Lilac Yosiphon, this ambitious project has been developed by the internationally diverse company, including cast members Tom Shah and Sam Elwin, and offers “a universal look at the language of love, the wounds of war and everything in between”.

The play’s creation was inspired by love letters from times of conflict in different cultures and languages. “The concept came from our director, Lilac, whose first instruction was to start reading,” says Tom. “Often they were the letters that were only intended to be read ‘should the worst happen’, and what is important to people in those situations – the words that they can’t leave unsaid – is more than enough inspiration.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

“Alongside discussing the letters’ common themes, we began to develop a physical language for the show,” continues Sam. “We then attempted writing our own letters and began writing scenes inspired by the stories that had stood out to us. We selected and adapted from this pool of scenes to create a number of more cohesive storylines, which we then overlapped with each other, using the physical language to bind them together and enhance the storytelling.”

The development process began in September 2014, when the basis for most of the storylines was formed. Sam explains: “The process is still ongoing; since the initial development process we’ve had a rehearsed reading of a full length version of the script and we have two more days of R&D (research and development) before rehearsals start, during which we’ll finalise the script. Moreover, rehearsals themselves are a process of devising and discovery, so the show will continue to develop and change during the rehearsal weeks.”

“Initially, it was about using the fact that we were a group of people of different ages, genders, and nationalities with different experiences to draw us to as wide and varied subjects as possible,” says Tom. “Since then we have periodically come back to One Last Thing (For Now) to get it to the point it’s at now. That said, we still have one more story to write; Islington will be our home for the duration of the show’s run, and we’ll be creating an entirely new scene based on letters sourced from the Islington borough.

“One of the themes of the show is that for all our differences, we have the fundamentals in common. We’re asking for letters from Islington that we will workshop with people from the borough to help create this brand new scene for the show. We want to make our show part of the local community, because with such a global spread of stories, we don’t want it to feel like it’s about other people.”

This additional scene is a crucial part of the audience experience, wherever the show is being performed. “We believe that everyone has a story that needs to be heard,” explains Sam. “The intention is to use the letters to inspire a new storyline or scene which is specific to the Islington area and will only be performed while the show is at the Old Red Lion – a new venue would result in a new scene being devised; again inspired by letters, emails, texts etc from the local area. We also wanted to create a direct link with the local community in the performance they would see. To give the audience a sense of ownership and participation – these stories belong to all of us in that they have shaped and continue to shape the world we live in.”

Dealing with such universal issues as love and war, the company hope that the show has something for everyone. “We can certainly all learn something from it, and indeed, since one if its primary themes is cross-cultural understanding, we hope everyone would,” says Sam. “That said, the people most likely to want to see it are those who are interested in stories from around the world; those who have experienced war, either through family and friends or directly; people with an interest in the history; and people who enjoy visually arresting theatre.”

Tom agrees, and adds, “I do think anyone would take something away from seeing the show, but it will probably resonate most with people who at one time or another have felt cut-off from the people they love. I hope audiences will leave with a better idea of what it is that’s important to them.”

The show brings together stories from several different conflicts across the world – stories that the cast have come to know well during the development process. “One of my favourites follows a Colombian woman as she travels the world in search of someone she loves,” says Tom. “Even though she’s from a country most of us have never been to (and probably couldn’t name the capital of), speaks another language, and the ‘foreign’ environment she finds herself in is London, our connection to her is almost instantaneous.”

Sam has a few favourites: “That’s a really tough question to answer, all of the stories are so special. I think three in particular stand out. One is a letter conversation between an American soldier in Vietnam and his wife at home in the US, because it highlights the gap between what is written home and what is experienced and the couple’s struggle to deal with that.

The second is a storyline concerning a French resistance fighter, because it asks how much can love forgive and can we escape the roles we have chosen for ourselves? Thirdly, the story about a woman who sends her touch, because it’s in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter – full of the fantastical and the macabre.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

The fact that the different stories cross so many historical and geographical borders inevitably presents some challenges: “First, with so many of the storylines featuring non-British characters we had to devise ways of translating or having enough English to be understood by English speakers without repeating ourselves,” explains Tom. “Second, was to have some form of connection between what could otherwise be unconnected stories from different times and places.”

“As part of this some of us have to learn new languages and accents,” adds Sam. “Russian and Hebrew were a particular challenge…”

He concludes: “I hope our audiences will go away with an empathy for people from countries other than their own, an insight into the effects of war after the shooting stops, a remembrance of those who have died on all sides, and a hope that these three things can reduce conflict.”

One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 7th-25th March.

Review: Henry V at Southwark Cathedral

I went in to Antic Disposition’s Henry V with high expectations. Not only was it in a unique and stunning venue – Southwark Cathedral, first stop on the company’s latest UK cathedral tour – but I’d heard amazing things following the production’s earlier performances in 2015 and 2016, and was eager to see if it lived up to its glowing reputation. (Spoiler alert: it totally does.)

In an inspired reframing of Shakespeare’s history as a play within a play, directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero have set the story in a French field hospital during World War 1, where a group of recuperating French and English soldiers, along with two of their nurses, put on a performance of Henry V to cheer themselves up. After a nervy start, they soon ease into their parts so well that both they and we get lost in the story – but reality is never far away, with the unwelcome reminder that there’s a big difference between playing soldiers and actually being one.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

While the performance of Henry V is excellent, it’s these additional scenes, along with songs based on the poetry of AE Housman, that really make the production stand out and give it such devastating emotional impact. 500 years separate the two conflicts, but while the two nations may now be allies instead of enemies, there’s a tragic inevitability about the end result: ordinary men – husbands, fathers, brothers and sons – losing their lives for someone else’s cause. The conclusion of both Acts 1 and 2 leave us shaken and horrified as we watch grown men crumble before our eyes, and it’s these moments that linger in the memory, far more than the triumphant scenes of England’s victory at Agincourt.

The format also sheds new light on the performance itself. When Henry, played by Rhys Bevan, looks doubtful of his cause, is it actually Henry or the soldier playing him? The love scene between the triumphant young monarch and French princess Katherine (Floriane Andersen) has a touching authenticity when viewed instead as an injured soldier and the nurse caring for him. And the heartbreaking moment when Mistress Quickly (Louise Templeton) waves her men off to battle is reflected later when the two nurses must once again watch their charges march away to an uncertain fate.

The Franco-British cast are uniformly excellent. Rhys Bevan proves a brilliant addition to the company, delivering the big speeches with passion and conviction, but nailing the lighter moments too (it’s no surprise to read in the programme that he’s a comedy performer). Dean Riley is a beautifully brattish Dauphin; Stephen Lloyd shows his versatility as timid Nym and bold, outspoken Williams and Westmoreland; Adam Philps is devastating as the shell-shocked soldier playing Bardolph; Floriane Andersen and Louise Templeton are a joy to watch as both the dedicated nurses and the giddy Princess Katherine practising English with her lady in waiting Alice. I could go on…

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The actors also prove themselves to be talented musicians, and their performances of Christopher Peake’s songs are spine-tingly beautiful, not least because they highlight the key emotional moments of the production. The poetry of AE Housman predates World War 1, but is nonetheless brutally candid about the horrors of conflict, and the words are a fitting accompaniment to Shakespeare’s text. The majestic cathedral setting is also a perfect fit (though it does suffer from occasional acoustic issues), giving new significance to the role of faith in times of war; even the less than temperate conditions inside feel appropriate for a field hospital.

This is the third year in a row that Antic Disposition have performed their Henry V, and having finally had a chance to experience it, I understand why audiences have been so happy to see them return. Entertaining, poignant and unforgettable, this is a production and performance that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. Catch it if you can.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: John Risebero, Henry V

John Risebero is co-director and designer of award-winning theatre company Antic Disposition, along with co-founder and director Ben Horslen. Next month they’ll be reviving their acclaimed production of Henry V; previously performed in France, with two London runs and a 2016 national tour, the show is taking to the road once more, giving audiences another chance to see what British Theatre called “one of the most impressive revivals of a Shakespeare play that I have seen in recent years”.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Founded in 2005, Antic Disposition have become known for their innovative interpretations of classic texts, particularly the works of Shakespeare – and the timing of this particular production was no accident. John explains: “We’d wanted to stage Henry V for several years but because we always tour our Shakespeare plays in France, we could never see a way to do it without being insensitive to our French hosts. But then we realised that not only was 2015 the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it was also the centenary of the Great War, which gave us the opportunity to create a production that reflected on the change in the relationship between England and France in those five centuries – from mortal enemies to loyal allies. So our production is set in a military hospital in France, where wounded British and French soldiers work together to stage their own production of Henry V. It’s really a play within a play – Henry V meets Oh, What a Lovely War.

In addition to Shakespeare’s text, the play also includes original songs and live music inspired by the poetry of A E Housman. “We knew we wanted to include music in the show but using period songs seemed too obvious and we weren’t comfortable writing new ones,” says John. “Then we discovered George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ from A Shropshire Lad and found that Housman had acknowledged he was inspired by Shakespeare. Although Housman’s work predates the Great War, so much of it reads like he knew what was coming. Our brilliant composer, Christopher Peake, set six more poems to original music for our show but we still use Butterworth’s version of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ – it’s our tribute to him, as he died on the Somme in 1916.

“The music is completely integral. Soldiers have always used song to lift spirits or celebrate victory. As well as poetry, the Great War gave us so much music that’s still with us, songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag’. In our production, we use music at key moments to bring the two sides together and remind the audience that war is a shared experience. It’s emotional shorthand.”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Although the play may be set in the past, John believes it still has a powerful message to share with a modern day audience: “Absolutely. War is a huge gamble, often taken too lightly. The French massively outnumbered the English at Agincourt but still lost the battle. In 1914, everyone thought the Great War would be over by Christmas, but it turned into one of the most destructive conflicts in history. It’s easy to open Pandora’s box, but the consequences can never be fully foreseen.”

Antic Disposition have also developed a reputation for staging productions in historic buildings and unusual non-theatre spaces, and this tour is no exception; Henry V will visit eight cathedrals around the UK, including Ripon, Lincoln, Peterborough, Ely, Norwich and Southwark. “We started out working in theatres but haven’t staged a play on a conventional stage for six years now,” John explains. “We find working in unusual buildings more exciting. There’s a special kind of magic when you are performing Henry V with the tomb of King John in the front row of the audience, as we did at Worcester Cathedral. It can be challenging from an acoustic perspective – many of our venues weren’t designed for this kind of performance, but we feel that those challenges are more than made up for by an atmosphere you can’t get in a regular auditorium.”

The 2017 tour of Henry V opens at Southwark Cathedral on 2nd February – and it’s not only audiences who are looking forward to its return. “We had a wonderful experience touring cathedrals last spring and wanted to bring the show to new venues and new audiences,” concludes John. “We think it’s the best work we’ve done as a company, and we’re very proud of it.”

Antic Disposition’s Henry V visits eight cathedrals around the UK from 2nd to 22nd February.