Saturday, 3 November 2018

REVIEW: Billy Bishop Goes to War at the Jermyn Street Theatre


November 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the many heroic and tragic stories from that war make natural stories to tell at this time both in remembrance of the loss of life and as a reminder of what that sacrifice was for. Many of the most successful plays are based on the ground war in the Flanders trenches where so many lives were lost and powerfully reveal the ordeal and fear that those men faced. 

Billy Bishop goes to war tells a very different true story of a reluctant Canadian calvary man who becomes a very successful pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and eventually gets honoured by the British King with three medals, the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross as the most successful pilot of his generation. The play was written by John Maclachlan Gray who in collaboration with Eric Patterson has also often performed it over the last forty years. However here it is directed by Jimmy Walters with Charles Aitken as the young Billy and Oliver Beamish as his older self.

Though set in a dilapidated shed scattered with memorabilia, the play has the feel of an old music hall act where the two actors play all the characters of the story , accompanied on an old up right piano and bring to life his diary and letters of his journey from naive and lazy twenty year old at the start of the war to feted hero by the end. The structure puts a lot of burden on Charles Aitken to create the drama and engage the audience as he almost single handedly lives out his adventures. Occasionally it works very well as in the Ballad of Albert Ball, a poetic retelling of the British Ace pilot who befriends Billy but is killed in one of his daring raids and in Billy's own daring raid where he avoids detection of six German planes as he escapes home but has to watch two of his victims fall to their death after their plane is hit. 

However at other times the pace seems slow, the caricatures obvious and the
period songs rather dull unless you like rhymes of fun with Hun. We never really understand his transformation from failing military student regarded as a liar and a cheat who swings periods in the sick bay to avoid duties into a flying ace whose bravery is undeniable. We do learn some interesting stuff about these early pilots like their eleven day life expectancy as pilots and the fact that these early flyers had no parachute. We also learn that the hierarchy wanted to pension him off from the front line when his deeds gave him celebrity status for fear that his death would damage colonial morale. 

The two actors work hard to breath life into the story but it lacks real drama and we don't care for Billy's character so ultimately it does not carry the impact of a War Horse, Private Peaceful, SSMendi, Oh what a lovely war or Journeys End which tell the First World War stories so effectively. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★

Seat: Stalls Row E | Price of Ticket: £30
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