On the centenary of the Armistice, Jermyn Street Theatre have aptly decided to present a widely unheard story about celebrated Canadian war hero Billy Bishop in the musical play “Billy Bishop Goes to War”.
Set in an old garage type space, filled with war memorabilia, we meet Billy, Charles Aitken and older Billy played by Oliver Beamish. We are instantly drawn in, with a music hall like interlude, as Beamish plays at an upright piano and together, this two man team retell the story of Billy, a young man like many other Canadians, and men from other colonies, who came to fight for England in the Great War.
Billy is cocky, known for being a bit lazy and a naïve under achiever- he spends many stints in the war hospital avoiding active service- until he finds his niche. Billy wants to be a pilot. We see Billy journey from excited young man, travelling to fight for the ‘mother land’ without knowing really why. To an older and wiser Billy, who has achieved celebrity status as a fighter pilot in the war who goes on to mixing with the elite but at the cost of the harrowing experiences of war.
Both Aitken and Beamish, dive into playing different characters, with bounds of energy as they retrace their steps along their journey together- this helped with upbeat songs, and dynamic visual images like an old metal plane they use to re-enact the battles- they gel together perfectly. A stand out number was the ballad of Albert Ball, a top British marksman who Billy befriended- which was delivered with real sincerity by Aitken.
This piece, is moving and heart warming as we see Billy become dehumanised in his role as fighter pilot, as his missions almost turns into a game for him as he takes great joy in his success and getting his number of hits up. However the ending sees a more reflective Billy, on the other side of the Great War, with the prospect of his children having to enter WW2 which really hits home the impact of the war on generations to come. This unique play, not only reveals a lot of historically accurate information, but really conveys the heart and humour that these soldiers had and how the Great War affected them and their families for years to come.