Review: Billy Bishop Goes to War

4 star rating
An intimate, absorbing and moving play with music documenting the extraordinary real-life experiences of a Canadian flying ace during The Great War.
Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Image: Jermyn Street Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 24 November 2018

John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with Eric Peterson

Jimmy Walters


Billy Bishop - Charles Aitken

Older Billy Bishop - Oliver Beamish


Canada 1914.

Billy Bishop signs up to fight in Europe and is soon in a military training camp.

But one day, he spots a single-seater plane circling overhead.

Overcoming intense prejudice and astonishing danger, Billy becomes the most successful fighter pilot of his generation.

A deceptively simple and totally gripping theatrical experience.


Billy Bishop Goes to War won the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Award in 1981, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1982 and the Governor General's Award for English Drama in 1982.

It is the most performed play in Canadian theatre.

Jimmy Walters is Artistic Director of Proud Haddock.

He returns to Jermyn Street Theatre following The Dog Beneath The Skin.

Other productions include Mrs Orwell (Southwark Playhouse) and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (Finborough Theatre).

This play with songs explores the complexities of heroism, the cost of war, and Britain's colonial past.

Billy Bishop goes to War is a true story.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 2 November 2018
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With this year heralding the centenary of the end of World War 1, it's not surprising that several war-themed plays are popping-up at this time.

Yesterday we reviewed The Greater Game, currently running at Waterloo East Theatre - you can read that review here.

Billy Bishop Goes to War and The Greater Game are two very different plays about The Great War with the essential focus here on an individual's experience of that terrible conflict.

In addition, Billy Bishop Goes to War gives us the perspective of the times and events from the point of view of a 'colonial'- a Canadian fighting for the 'Mother Country'.

The importance of the efforts of colonial military personnel in the final outcome of the war is highlighted in a BBC documentary - 100 Days to Victory - first shown on 23 October and still available on BBC iPlayer if you feel like taking in some of the background.

There's also something of a documentary feel to this play - which might be more aptly described as a play with music because songs and simple piano accompaniment pepper proceedings.

That not only provides some enhancing variety to the exposition, but also lends authenticity and evocative atmosphere from the era in which the play is largely set.

Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Charles Aitken as Billy - photo by Robert Workman

Billy Bishop was a real person, born in 1894 in Owen Sound in Ontario, Canada.

That made him just 20 at the start of the First World War in 1914.

Though he'd had relatively little success in making headway in the Canadian military, when war broke out in Europe he was readily given a commission and, after some delays in his transportation, ended-up in Europe in 1915.

He soon took a dislike to the mud and stench of the trenches and battlefield, and sought a different route in terms of his participation in the fighting by becoming first an observer and then a pilot, eventually becoming a well-known flying ace - in fact the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war.

Billy Bishop Goes to War at Jermyn Street Theatre

Charles Aitken (left) and Oliver Beamish - photo by Robert Workman

As a quick reading of Billy Bishop's biography shows, the play here seems entirely faithful to his real life story which gives us an important insight into the man and the brutality of the times in war-torn Europe.

A while ago, a person sitting near me at a different venue said he "longed for a set in small-scale productions".

Though budgets and space can't always accommodate a detailed set, we get an effective one here from designer Daisy Blower who doesn't attempt to replicate war-time trenches or the battlefield, but still evokes those settings in a collection of multifarious objects that together form a kind of jumbled continuum of memories.

That seems entirely appropriate for a story that focuses on the youthful and mature versions of the same character - Charles Aitken as young Billy and Oliver Beamish, as his older self, who also provides effortlessly stylish accompaniment on the piano.

Both actors also describe a number of other characters who find their way into Billy's compelling and remarkable story.

Mr Aitken ably defines an almost carefree Billy at the start of the piece who doesn't go much on military rules and procedures.

But once his character enters the battle zone and faces a daily struggle to survive, we find him making an immense transition into a kind of killing machine who almost tempts death, or at least lives in defiance of it.

John MacLachlan Gray's play avoids the mawkish and sentimental without being shallow or cursory, and his tuneful compositions are reminiscent of the songs around the time of The Great War.

They are obviously not the kind of big numbers we find in glitzy West End musicals, but have a down-to-earth quality about them suggestive of people singing round a piano at home.

On one level, Billy Bishop Goes to War is simply biographical - an account of one man's unique experiences at a particular time of crisis, extreme danger and the ever-present threat of untimely, early death.

On the other hand, you could also read it as a generalised explanation of what happens when individuals face life-threatening situations and how they are changed by them.

However you want to take it, the play is certainly an intimate, moving and absorbing testament to one man's extraordinary wartime career.

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