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FringeReview UK 2018

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Proud Haddock

Genre: Biography, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Revived at Jermyn Street this 1978 play is directed by Jimmy Walters. Daisy Blower’s set evokes the older Bishop’s study in miraculous detail. Arnim Freiss’ lighting comes alive at exciting moments. Dinah Mullen’s sounds evoke cheers off. And wind in the wires. Till November 24th.


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.


Here it’s revived at Jermyn Street directed by Jimmy Walters of Proud Haddock, though having played previously on Broadway and the West End, it’s more established minor classic than rarity. Proud Haddock’s got form here, recently mounting Tony Harrison’s skirling first-war verse-satire Square Rounds at the Finborough.


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 Charles Aitken’s yowling dash and Oliver Beamish’s 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. Daisy Blower’s set evokes the older Bishop’s study in miraculous detail. Three old fighters dangle over a woven vertical rug of bric-a-brac, memorabilia and photographs, a trunk and greatcoat, flying jacket and officer’s jacket hung up. There’s a small shelf with a watering can and what look like trophies. There’s virtually no place to insert a cigarette paper. Stage left Beamish is at an upright piano for much of the time; stage right an old sidecar bullet does service for an observer, then fighter plane nacelle. Arnim Freiss’ lighting comes alive at exciting moments, punctuated with occasional black-outs through the two acts. Dinah Mullen’s sounds evoke cheers off, like a ghostly vast audience around us. And the wind in the wires of 15,000 feet.


It’s very much a play in two parts and these are infectious especially the first two: ‘It didn’t seem like war (at all, at all at all)’ with its haunting lilt, and the off-beat song of Canada’s response to war. Melodically there’s a melancholic undertow, with harmonic originality in the piano part that makes these memorable. Beamish and Aitken are both in good voice, harmonize well, and Beamish’s idiomatic piano-playing is a delight: he brings out the tang of Gray’s part-writing. Aitken has a stand-alone solo and a poem about British ace Albert Ball.


The two inhabit dizzying roles genders and accents, thus Beamish takes on avuncular British officers and doctors, Cedric the snobby butler, Bourne the true sick-hearted mechanic Walter Bourne, head of RFC Trenchard. Aitken 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 Beamish’s downbeat modest intro Aitken 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 a 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.


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. Aitken relishes quick-changes from Bishop to St Helier as Beamish’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 Aitken’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 Aitken acts. 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; Aitken’s inside this, legs akimbo for his wire-cage Farman, and that sidecar. 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.’


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. There’s war-guilt, Bishop’s friends killed. His encounter with Ball (Aitken’s memorial poem recitation touching here) who suggests they shoot up an aerodrome together but gets killed stupidly. So doubting Bishop does it himself, earning his VC, Aitken’s visceral account topping the night’s physical acting as he zooms about the edge of the cheek-by-helmet audience.


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. In truth there’s uncertainty about all allied top scorers, and German records, adulterated to minimize losses.


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.


Aitken dominates narration as befits the original concept. Beamish though takes up much in an avuncular manner towards the end. 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. 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. Aitken’s fresh snarl, parodic buffoonery and laughter, Beamish’s mellowness, character-parts and consummate pianism blend with both voices to make this as good a case as we’re likely to see for some time. It’s a fit memorial, exactly one hundred years from the Armistice – and forty years to the day of this enduring work’s debut