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.
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.
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 ran at Jermyn Street Theatre until 24th November. Catch it again at Southwark Playhouse from 13th March to 6th April.
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