An engaging story of a young Canadian called into WWI by the British Empire. One of the most decorated pilots of the war, Billy was an Ace Pilot. Great acting and lively singing make this sad-sounding story a pleasure to watch.
Based on the true story of a Canadian First World War Ace, the play is a moving account of a fearless, and sometimes careless hero of the skies. Billy joins the cavalry to ‘fight the Hun,’ but despairs of the cold, the mud and the dust in the trenches. Captivated by the sight of a fighter plane overhead, he talks his way into the Royal Flying Corps and becomes one of the most decorated pilots of the war.
Billy engages enthusiastically with the adventure of war. His eventual symbolic importance in Britain brings friendship from members of the aristocracy, and he is shown-off to Churchill and eventually King George the 5th himself. There are poetic moments as well as vivid descriptions of dog-fights in the air and the inevitably moving deaths on the ground. The more sombre second half of the play shows the effect of combat on Billy; the excitement of hunting and killing the enemy, but the pain on confronting the death of young men like himself.
The set is lovely, detailed, and cleverly topped with parachutes evoking just the right feel. With the lighting it worked very well in conjuring different times and places in Billy’s story. Managing to hide a ‘plane’ on the set was clever, and when it was eventually used the combination of acting, lighting and sound took us all into the air together.
Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish performed with great ease and confidence. They play Billy as young and old respectively, along with all the other characters that arise in the play – from posh English officers, to a French cabaret singer. Aitken especially covered a great range of emotion, giving a very dynamic performance. Aware of his own charm and good looks, he used those qualities expertly in the service of the play and interactions with the audience were cleverly used without breaking the mood of the piece. The pace is lively, helped by the songs – not very memorable, but adding energy to the proceedings.
Touching on the themes of Empire, class and personal bravery, a play like this brings enormous baggage and could easily slip into cliched references to golden youth and poetic heroism. But in focussing on Billy’s personal experiences in that particular hell, the play and the actors combine to give a moving account of his war. Outstanding.
Billy Bishop Goes to War is at The Southwark Playhouse until 6th April
More information and tickets can be found here