Written by John Gray with Eric Peterson
Directed by Jimmy Walters
Designed by Daisy Blower
Featuring Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish
31 October – 24 November 2018
I have never been to Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is tucked away just off Piccadilly Circus, a modest little door on a quiet back street. I make my way downstairs to discover an intimate but bona fide theatre space, complete with audience seating upholstered in faded red, and one that is perfectly suited to this particular play. The theatre’s dim lighting, classic decor, and underground location make me feel like I stepped into a wartime bunker bar. The set is amazing, halfway between a mancave-type hideaway and a veteran’s private, personal museum. It is littered with wartime paraphernalia, framed black and white photographs, and various bits and pieces, each of which hints at its own backstory (even if we never discover the stories behind most of these objects). The rough wooden walls are plugged up in places with white canvas cloth – a parachute? – which allows for beautiful plays of light glowing through crevices and cracks.
After a while, the house lights go down and the jazz music quiets, and the veteran himself (played by Oliver Beamish) steps out into the stage space. He spends a few moments tidying up the cluttered space, beaming in nostalgia at each object he picks up, until an old pair of shoes transport him back in memory to a wartime dance. Dusting off an old piano in the corner, he begins to play and sing, and his younger self (Charles Aitken) steps onto stage and starts to tell the audience his story of when Billy Bishop went to war.
Aitken’s Billy is almost eerily convincing as a young Canadian WW1 soldier (although admittedly, I don’t have much experience with Canadian accents myself) – in his faded army issue, and later aviator uniform, he seems to have stepped straight out of an old photograph. But it’s not just his costuming: even his vocal tonalities and facial mannerisms are spot-on, like your great-grandfather in the body of a young man. Taking the audience into his confidence, he charms us with his cheek and energy, magnetically inhabiting the space and transporting us back in time. His older self, for the main part, watches from the edge of the stage, providing piano backing and occasionally stepping in to embody various supporting characters (as does Aitken too, most comedically the women Lady St Helier and Lovely Helene).
Billy Bishop’s story is a true one, although fictionalised and romanticised somewhat in this play. An underachieving young Canadian who, despite a number of suspiciously timed injuries and illnesses, he joins the Army and sails to Europe to fight “the hun” for the British motherland. His exploits find him climbing in rank and altitude to become a fighter pilot, a captain, and a posterboy for the Colonial war efforts – but rarely do we feel like he is ever totally in control of his journey.
This is a superbly executed production. The acting is absolutely phenomenal, the period-appropriate music in turns droll and spellbinding, the pacing riveting, and all aspects of design – set, lighting, sound – flawless. It is rare to feel so completely transported in time and place, with that rare kind of beautifully eloquent writing and powerful delivery that can conjure up vivid images before your eyes. The set never changes, but with subtle and evocative support from the sound, music, and lighting designers (Dinah Mullen, Adam Gerber, and Arnim Friess), the audience is pulled along with Billy to witness the open airs of Canada, the luxury of London high society, the squalor and horror of the trenches, daring aerial battles, and much more besides. It is easy to see how Billy Bishop Goes To War is often billed as one of Canada’s greatest theatrical triumphs.
That said, it was originally written forty years ago, and this does show in the way it at times feeds into outdated narratives and attitudes. It is true that Billy is presented as a very flawed and human hero, and that the play does explore the nightmarish, horrific side of war, and I realise that Billy’s perspectives and beliefs are representative of his character and era rather than those of the writers. However, I doubt that any play written today would present the glory and heroism of war as uncritically as Billy Bishop, let alone notions of Empire and the “colonial spirit”. It is difficult to tread the fine line between respecting fallen soldiers and painting them in rosy colours, and it is understandable why this play tends towards the latter, but in today’s present political climate – with tides of nationalism, war-mongering, male chauvinism, and imperialism on the rise worldwide – it seems to me to be irresponsible to produce a play which at times feels like a nostalgic homage to old-fashioned masculinity and patriotism. Don’t get me wrong, this play and production do acknowledge the futility and horror of war and send up blind jingoism (and especially the British), but not as much as the times require. Just today it was announced that the government is planning to increase numbers of recruits from the Commonwealth for the British armed forces, and it struck me that Billy’s final scene speech to the next generation of colonial soldiers could serve wholesale as propaganda to aid enlistments for this change.
Despite this ideological cautioning, I would still heartily recommend this show as a classic piece of excellently produced theatre. Aitken’s performance, in particular, is phenomenal, and I would like to reiterate my admiration of the whole creative and design team. Get to the Jermyn Street Theatre and take to the skies with Billy before the end of this show’s run – just make sure to keep the real world in your sights.