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The Theatreguide.London Review

Billy Bishop Goes To War
Jermyn Street Theatre   Autumn 2018

The August 1914 decision by Britain to take its Empire to war with Germany mobilised over half a million Canadian troops. Among them is Billy Bishop whose story is dramatised by John Gray with Eric Peterson in a play first performed some forty years ago. 

Something of the early war optimism is reflected in the repeated appearance of a song with the lines: 'We were off to fight the Hun And it looked like lots of fun.' But Billy isn't initially much of an heroic figure, describing himself as 'a liar and cheat,' keen to dodge duty. 

All that changes when he becomes a fighter pilot saying with enthusiasm the 'first Hun I see is the first Hun to die.' And they certainly do with his record seventy-two 'kills.' 

This could have been little more than a Boy's Own adventure story in which suffering is ignored and war is a game, leading those of us with a more modern sensibility to run from the theatre. 

That doesn’t happen for a number of reasons, not least the extraordinary power of the production team that for more than two hours give us mostly a monologue by the remarkable Charles Aitken as the young Billy Bishop, confidently inhabiting the part with such attention to detail that we are drawn along by every gesture, look and movement. 

And there is certainly a lot of movement with the sharp direction of Jimmy Walters ensuring the show has a very dynamic theatricality. But importantly they don’t skate over aspects of the play that are more critical of the war. 

There is the cartoonish depiction of the British authorities who refer to the Canadians as the colonials, and dine out as if their privileged lifestyle can't possibly be interrupted. 

And there are the sobering reports of the dead, from Billy's sadness at the sight of two German airman falling to their death from a plane he had just attacked to the cabaret song of Lady Helene describing the soldiers Christian Johnny, 'humble and humane' and patriotic George, 'his country he adored ... who never got out alive.' 

Even the celebrated heroism of the fighter pilot Albert Ball is given a more cynical twist in Billy's poem with its repeated lines 'the British like their heroes/ Cold and dead, or so its seems.' 

This play does not have the hard edged rage of the anti-war poems that have helped define the 1914-18 war as senseless but this is a fine production well worth seeing.

Keith Mckenna

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Review - Billy Bishop Goes To War - Jermyn Street Theatre 2018

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