As a cloud-like parachute billows above a room strewn with knick-knacks and suffused with memories (a superb design from Daisy Blower), a middle-aged man (Oliver Beamish) strikes up at the piano: “We were off to fight the hun/and it looked like lots of fun…” But as his younger self (Charles Aitken) joins in, it becomes clear that this is not a straightforward, jingoistic retelling of wartime escapades.
First produced in the 1970s, John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson’s Billy Bishop Goes to War is the most widely staged musical play in Canadian theatre. Director Jimmy Walters has reconceived the show as a two-hander that retains the intimate feel of the original, but allows for conversation between Bishop’s younger and older selves.
As Bishop, the feckless Canadian army recruit turned fighter pilot, Aitken captures a sense of irreverence that contrasts with many who rushed to sign up at the outbreak of the First World War.
Aitken creates vivid, quick-fire cameos of others he encounters – including his haughty aristocratic benefactor Lady St Helier and a seductive French chanteuse – while charting Bishop’s rise to bloodthirsty flying ace. Particularly harrowing is the way his bravado dissipates as he watches, powerless, while enemy airmen fall to their death.
Beyond accompanying the songs, Beamish also sparkles as bluff British military top brass who lionise and patronise this plucky ‘colonial’ in equal measure. His older version of Bishop is clearly deeply affected by what has gone before.
Walters’ production succeeds not simply as entertainment, but because it balances the enormous sense of loss for those who died in the Great War against the guilt felt by many who fought and survived.