Pros: An engrossing war story brilliantly told by a two man cast.
Cons: A disappointingly camp cabaret section at the start of Act II looks out of place and disturbs the story’s tone.
There are subtle reminders that November has arrived: the clocks go back, street lights flicker into life earlier and Christmas adverts creep onto TV screens. Another permanent reminder is Remembrance Sunday. Billy Bishop Goes To War gives a very personal account of the titular character, told by his younger self (Charles Aitken) and older self (Oliver Beamish). The tight, but always compact Jermyn Street Theatre offers a detailed set design that pins the story down with some excellent period detail. The younger Billy excitedly relates his idealism, while the older version wistfully recalls the past, providing accompaniment on the piano. The songs arrive at fairly regular intervals, but sound dangerously twee, particularly Off to fight the Hun; more of an exercise in finding how many words rhyme with ‘Hun’. The songs should help the story along, but frequently feel more of a distraction. I would even suggest the songs weren’t actually needed, such is the story’s power.
Billy’s enlistment in the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) is told with a satisfying mix of deference and smug assumption that colonials will happily lay down their lives for the mother country. Billy’s story rightly highlights the contribution of Canadian, ANZAC and South African combatants in the Great War. Act II begins with a hideously camp musical interlude, which although intended to cover Billy’s visit to the Paris burlesque almost derails the story. However, it’s soon back on track with a gripping portrayal of dogfights over the skies of France. Although based on fact, Billy’s war record has caused much debate over the years. The number of kills attributed to him does vary, particularly the point at which he passed top British marksman Albert Ball. Another fanciful tale is Billy’s solo assault on an enemy airfield. Wartime conditions can, in all fairness, skew figures and distort the truth. The fact that Billy survived the war was an achievement, particularly as an RFC pilot’s average lifespan was 11 days.
Billy Bishop goes to War is a remarkable piece of storytelling. Without elaborate visuals or set design, the play makes its point about the human cost of war and how a unique generation were sacrificed. Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish were excellent, not only in their primary roles but in at least a dozen roles shared between them.
Authors: John Gray with Eric Peterson
Director: Jimmy Walters
Musical Director: Adam Gerber
Producer: Jermyn Street Theatre
Box Office: 0207 287 2875
Booking Link: https://www.eticketing.co.uk/jermynstreettheatre/list.aspx
Booking until: 24th November 2018