REVIEW: Billy Bishop Goes To War (Southwark Playhouse) ★★★★★

First produced in 1978, John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most widely staged musical play in Canadian theatre.

The two-man play dramatizes the life of Billy Bishop who transforms from failing Canadian military college student to the fighter pilot of his generation and a somewhat reluctant war hero. This charming and darkly comic drama interrogates the nature of heroism and its cost.

In an intricately decorated bunker designed by Daisy Blower, Charles Aitken as the eponymous Billy Bishop fills every inch of the stage with his charisma. From playful interactions with the audience, to intense accounts of his exploits in the air, Aitken is unstoppable, his sense of humour captivating the audience from start to finish.

As accompanist and older Billy Bishop, Oliver Beamish is equally engaging, delving deeper into the impact the war had on Billy’s later life.

Both actors are charged with playing various other characters and both succeed in melting from one character to another with enormous skill.

Director Jimmy Walters’ production succeeds in providing comedy and drama all framed with music in the style of classic war-time tunes. Billy Bishop Goes to War is a captivating insight in to the Canadian involvement in The Great War, showing both the seductive glory of war and its tragic cost.

Reviewed by Ben McDonald
Photo: Nick Rutter


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