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: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.

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Review: Oh What A Lovely War at Oldham Coliseum

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Starting in 2014, and no doubt continuing right up until the end of 2018, Britain has been commemorating the centenary of World War 1. The Great War, The War To End All Wars. I have seen some extremely moving tributes both theatrical and musical, and now The Coliseum Theatre in Oldham opens its Autumn season with something which is a little of both, Oh What A Lovely War. A pioneering and daring work in its time, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford East came up with a dark satire which parodies the war and those in charge of it, commenting on its futility and political motivations through sharp humour and song.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

If this doesn’t sound too hard to imagine and a little lame, then remember this was premiered in 1963 when the constraints of theatre were much more rigid than today, and also that at that time, it was less than 20 years since the end of World War 2, with both The Cold War and The Vietnam War still continuing.

Littlewood uses the songs of the period to great effect, interspersing them throughout with little vignettes as the cast of ten dressed in costumes reminiscent of the old Music Hall Pierrettes take on multifarious characters ranging from civilian, military and political persons from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russian etc, presenting “the ever popular, ‘War Games'”.

To aid us all in this, since this is a history lesson on four years of fighting on a scale never before encountered, there is a large screen in the centre of the stage upon which helpful photographs, documents, maps and information – all historically accurate – are displayed. In fact, Foxton has designed a simple and yet superb set. A circular ‘stage’ around which the performers and their props and instruments wait in Brechtian fashion, with a false gallery and prosc arch, bunting, the royal Coat Of Arms, and footlights. Just what one would have expected to find at the theatre at the end of a pier in those days.

There are ten performers in all; but don’t ask me to tell you how many characters they play between them! However, their character changes are swift and clever, with the simple addition of a hat or scarf, or perhaps even just an umbrella. They are also multi-talented as indeed they all must also sing, dance and play at least one musical instrument, as they were also the show’s band, “The Merry Roosters”. And so, piano, bass, clarinet, trombone, drum kit, and goodness knows what else were played by those members not actually involved in the acting of each scenelet.

I must say right now that under normal circumstances I am absolutely no fan of actor-musicians; and I still think I would have enjoyed the show more had they been separate, but it certainly didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as I thought it would, and for a show of this particular style, and the lovely Brechtian directing by the Coliseum’s Artistic Director Kevin Shaw, it was apt and fitted well. I do feel though that some of the songs would have benefited from a fuller sound vocally; although the harmonies were lovely, they were a little sparse.

Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

In fact Shaw has brought out the best from both his cast and the show in this. It could do with being a little pacier; I felt especially the first half dragged ever so slightly (perhaps because the audience didn’t really “get it”) but hopefully given a few more runs for it to “bed-in” the pace will naturally quicken anyway. Beverley Norris-Edmunds should also be commended here too for her lovely choreography. Stylistically perfect and worked excellently.

It is almost impossible to single out certain cast members from others in a show such as this, a true ensemble piece in every regard, but I cannot leave this review without mentioning them, as they are all excellent. They are Isobel Bates, Matt Connor, Richard J. Fletcher, Jeffrey Harmer, Barbara Hockaday, Anthony Hunt, Thom Petty, Lauryn Redding, Reece Richardson, and David Westbrook. My favourite number from the evening though simply has to be the lovely acapella rendering of When This Lousy War Is Over.

Oh What A Lovely War may not prove to be everyone’s cup of tea (but I guess the same can be said of any piece of theatre); however, I do believe that the Coliseum have got another hit show on their hands with this one. Poignant, relevant, and also very funny, true to the spirit and concept of the original production. Well done chaps!

Oh What A Lovely War is at the Oldham Coliseum until 30th September.

Review: Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.

In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.

Photo credit: Robert Day

The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)

The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.

Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.

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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.

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