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FringeReview UK 2018

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Brighton Little Theatre with Gonna Fly Productions

Genre: Live Music, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre


Low Down

Revived at Brighton Little Theatre with Gonna Fly Productions this 1978 play is directed – musically too – by Michael James. There’s no set bar a varnished table, chair, hat-stand and that upright piano stage right.Graham Brown choreographs in a necessarily tight space. Beverley Grover’s lighting comes alive at key moments, green for nausea, red for the ferocity of battle lust. Grover’s sounds evoke sparingly machine guns, engines and wind in the wires; and a solitary violin. The backdrop black curtain are functional too. There’s also a brief back projection of aerial fighting, just once, from an old 1930 film. Till November 10th.



On the face of it, it’s curious that John MacLachlan Gray’s 1978 Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most popular Canadian drama ever. Especially since after all its awards (the Governor General’s and Los Angeles Critics Circle for instance) it underwent two revisions, in 1998 and 2010: adding a song and crucially the older Billy’s voice. Eric Peterson the original performer was involved in all these stages; he and Gray have nurtured this work over forty years.


This version – with Gonna Fly Productions – opts to focus on Nikolas Balfe rather than distribute characters and even the eponymous Bishop between Balfe and Brogan West whose pianism throughout is stylish and accompanies like a film score all sorts of effects superbly. It’s even more remarkable given Balfe is between two sets of performances of Edith in the Dark.


It’s directed – musically too – by Michael James. There’s no set bar a varnished table, chair, hat-stand and that upright piano stage right.Graham Brown choreographs in a necessarily tight space: freshly and effectively too. Beverley Grover’s lighting comes alive at key moments, green for nausea, red for the ferocity of battle lust. Grover’s sounds evoke sparingly machine guns, engines and wind in the wires; and a solitary violin. The backdrop black curtain are functional too. There’s also a brief back projection of aerial fighting, just once, from an old 1930 film.


There’s snappy khaki RFC uniforms and at the end, an RAF one for the older Bishop. That’s when the ‘worst officer ever’ ended up Air Marshal of the RCAF…


The fact that it’s currently revived at Jermyn Street till November 24th directed by Jimmy Walters of Proud Haddock speaks for itself: having played in the West End and Broadway, it’s more established minor classic than rarity. In that version you’ll see the more of a double-act. A work with several versions and options is likely to have a long life.


Above all though this is a work of cultural assertion as much as courage, of which Bishop exemplifies several kinds, embodying what it was to be sneered at, appropriated, lionized and patronised, to commanding respect. It’s Canada’s relation to Britain in a gunshell. A foundation myth in photographs – now come to life.


From his start as rule-breaking tearaway virtually thrown out of military academy, through terror and the snarl of killing, to desolation and a ferocious mastery, Bishop is Canada; not the polite modest cousin – of the U. S. as much as the U. K. But the raw-humoured pioneer praised, parodied and pilloried in the verses of Robert W Service, whose work underlies the lyric writing here. Bishop didn’t want to stop. By the end, such is the force of Balfe’s yowling dash and West’s occasional wry modulations, you almost don’t want him to.


Though it’s a play with songs and multi-roling, the physical is key to keeping Bishop, just occasionally, on the ground.


It’s very much a play in two parts and these are infectious especially the first two: ‘We were off to fight the Hun…. It didn’t seem like war (at all, at all at all)’ with its haunting Irish lilt, and the off-beat song of Canada’s response to war ‘They don’t shoot people in Canada’. Melodically there’s a melancholic undertow, with harmonic originality in the piano part that makes these memorable.


West and Balfe are both in good voice, harmonize ravisishingly, and West’s idiomatic piano-playing is a delight: he brings out the tang of Gray’s part-writing. Balfe has a stand-alone solo and a poem about British ace Albert Ball. There’s an addition: ‘The Dying Airman’ a traditional song added here, not sung in the Jermyn Street production as not by Gray. There’s been very limited editing elsewhere, around five minutes’ worth. Unless you know the piece you won’t notice and if you do, you won’t mind.


Balfe inhabits dizzying roles genders and accents: avuncular British officers and doctors, Cedric the snobby butler, Bourne the true sick-hearted mechanic Walter Bourne, various Generals. Balfe deliciously slinks both Lady St Helier (more on her later…) and the Lovely Helene as well as a sprinkling of high-spirited young blades, including Ball.


After a downbeat modest intro Balfe springs forth to recount his heltering late adolescence, near expulsion from the Royal Military College saved by the war, surviving a vomity convoy where 200 Canadians didn’t, and cavalry with ‘mud and horse-shit’. Spotting an aeroplane that landed, the pilot asking the way (Private Peaceful has a pre-war scene exactly like this) his vocation’s certain. ‘It’s a different war up there…. if you die at least it would be a clean death.’ Gray’s using Bishop’s own account.


This is where Gray scores off the British. Canadians are second class, but gentlemen note that with an eleven-day lifespan for pilots, perhaps it’s not for them. Too true. There’ll be vacancies. The two top British aces, notably Mick Mannock and James McCudden were both working-class engineers (Mannock Irish too and blind in one eye). McCudden started as an air mechanic. Others like Ball were lower-middle class. And ultimately the four top surviving allied aces apart from René Fonk were Canadian: Bishop, Barker, Collishaw, McLaren.


There’s stock-comedy scenes with an officer and doctor. Much of what Gray does is what we’re used to in Oh! What a Lovely War. But colonial-class snarl has more point and resonates with Canadian and American audiences, as well as here.


When the top brass yank Bishop out (he gets back) it’s because ‘colonials have a life-wish… your death would discourage them.’ It makes colonials sound like a slightly inferior breed, lacking British phlegm. If you’re attuned, it’s deadly.


It gets better. Applying as recommended for the more vacant post of Observer one of the weirdest turns in Bishop’s life; Bishop’s natural charm and socialising are collapsed into faux-innocence. Lady St Helier (1845-1931) arrives after another of Bishop’s accident-prone compound fractures lands him in deep er-stuck with her.


Mysteriously she’s the British conscience chiding him on. Balfe relishes quick-changes from Bishop to St Helier as West’s Cedric attempts treating ‘the colonial’ like horse-shit. She pulls wires: with aeroplanes attached and he’s off for pilot training.


One great set-piece is Balfe’s enacting his first solo with its rush of wires, tilting earth and solos. It’s thoroughly authentic both as Bishop (originally) and Gray describe and Balfe acts. Balfe uses the chair, and on his set-piece later, chair on table. The great literary classic of flying, V. M. Yeates’ Winged Victory, written by a pilot dying of TB and influenced by Joyce hasn’t been bettered; Balfe’s inside this. As someone who solo’d first with fabric/wood gliders, open cockpit and no parachute in the days of RAF scholarships, I can only report it’s exactly how it feels, and landing’s where accidents happen. ‘Lovely flier’ said Ball’s rigger to this writer’s father. ‘Couldn’t land.’ Not Bishop’s suit either. He’s a better fighter than flier.


Gray’s careful to allow Bishop’s prat-crashes to take us half-way, redeemed by his first victory when about to be sent home. Tonal change is due.


The second half galvanizes a totalising Bishop with élan, exhaustion, ‘eagle eyes’ and ‘killer’ blood. But the Belle Helene song interrupting fighting terms with another refrain ‘he didn’t get out alive… he didn’t survive’ with Balfe playing a sexy French chanteuse is a knockout. And the more strident ‘Welcome to the Empire Soirée’.


There’s war-guilt, Bishop’s friends killed. His key peer encounter is with Ball (Balfe’s memorial poem recitation touching here) who suggests they shoot up an aerodrome together but gets killed stupidly. Balfe assumes a white silk scarf and a touching boyishness – even more than Bishop who’s himself utterly bewitched by the courage of a teenager two-and-a-half years younger than himself. Who played the violin, letting all the death-haunted elegy through his body. The off-stage sound’s a transfixing moment.


So doubting Bishop does it himself, earning his VC, Balfe’s visceral account topping the night’s physical acting as he zooms about the edge of the cheek-by-helmet audience, up the central steps between seats and virtually in your lap.


Together with Mannock, there’s much contesting of Bishop’s actual score, and this episode; Gray’s play has never tackled tattle. Mannock never claimed many kills, but his wingman and biographer Ira Jones who hated Bishop gave Mannock one more than his rival, only recently debunked. Another instance of anti-Canadian sentiment.


Collishaw (this writer’s father treated a pilot in his squadron: ‘that mad bastard!’) ascribed many of his kills to wingmen to encourage them; Mannock did too. It’s strongly suggested Collishaw might have shot down more than anyone, around 81, more than the Baron. In truth there’s uncertainty about all allied top scorers, and German records, adulterated to minimize losses. Bishop though was more a lone wolf, like Ball, Richtoften and some others.


What wrenches this to elegy is Bishop’s weariness, his weeping exhaustion and guilt, his frantic fling with the lovely Helene ‘because you’re beautiful… but we must never meet after’ she tells him, despite both being engaged and married. And the songs, latter minor-keyed ones in period, precede the reprise of the opening number. And gongs. More good kicks at Buckingham House and class-schooling. Think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.


Balfe dominates narration as befits the original concept. West though takes up a brief song in an avuncular manner towards the end. His voice is different to Balfe’s soaring tenor, attractively grainy and characterful. They harmonise beautifully too. As the duo fade into their own legend, you’re left wondering at what the theatre of it means.


We’re so used to debunking World War One horrors that registering Bishop’s ferocious delight is alien, despite obvious trauma. Clearly there’s gleeful reclamation from colonial status; Donald Jack’s Stephen Leacock Award-winning comic novels (1962-2006) about accident-prone Canadian ace Bandy leave a faint indent. And Canada held all the live aces. That doesn’t explain its success abroad: there’s comedy, goofiness, visceral flying-scenes, multi-roling slapstick. The storytelling’s irresistible.


Perhaps because it’s a true slant on all that fiction. There aren’t many First War flying dramas as opposed to novels. Air experience was different, out-of-kilter with post-war and Yeates’ is the only period novel. Bishop’s delight was typical. Discussing their experiences with two RFC pilots during the 1970s-80s, their razor recall attested one thing: delight. One was an Irish nationalist surviving the entire war. The other, shot down by Richtoften’s circus and taken prisoner, affirmed to me it was the time of his life. We have to acknowledge that too.


Overall though, it’s those songs. Rarely do so many on first hearing lodge themselves; even more on second. Taking Oh! What a Lovely War as part-model, Gray and Petersen riff on fact, destabilising pomp, circumstance and the sad absurdities of courage, as well as its worth.


Balfe’s ardent tenor, fresh snarl, parodic buffoonery and laughter, West’s mellowness and consummate pianism blend with both voices to make this as good a case as any London production. Though I missed the double act to an extent, the chemistry and singing here’s quite astonishing. Balfe gives the performance of his life so far. James knows exactly how to shape this protean piece for BLT’s space. It’s a fit memorial, exactly one hundred years from the Armistice – and forty years to the day of this enduring work’s debut.