Billy Bishop Goes to War, Jermyn St London, 4****: William Russell



by John Gray with Eric Peterson


Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6SJ to 24 November 2018.

Mon-Sat 7.3opm Mat Sat 3.30pm.

Runs 2hr 15 mins One interval.

TICKETS: 020 7287 2835.



Review: William Russell 3 November.

A surprising anti war play

The most popular play in Canadian theatrical history Billy Bishop Goes to War is based on the true story of a man who became the most successful fighter pilot in the First World War and went on to serve in the last one ending up as an Air Marshall in the Royal Canadian Airforce and a national hero, albeit one little known here. It is a two hander with one actor playing the young Billy, the other his older self, as well as all the other characters. It raises all sorts of questions.

The first act is a very funny account about how the young Billy answered the call of the Motherland and joined up, first in the Cavalry and then, when in England, joining the Royal Flying Corps. He was the sort of rogue who would get excused boots day one, spend most of his time dodging duties, some of it in the sick bay, and generally misbehaving. Charles Aitken as the young Billy creates the sort of charmer one watches with admiration at his sheer cheek, while accepting he is basically a rotter. It is a dazzling performance and his Mademoiselle from Armentieres turn is a show stopper if ever there was.

As the older Bill Oliver Beamish at the piano comments on the action, sings patriotic songs of the time, and shows perfect the sadder and wiser man the boy became. Billy was well connected and ended up in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and found his reason for being at war – he was a brilliant pilot, a killer of Germans rivalled only by an equally young man, Albert Ball, a Briton.

In the second half the mood changes, we realise what Billy has become and also the play skilfully directed by Jimmy Walters looks at the relationship between the Motherland and all those nations in the Empire who answered the call to arms, but were treated very much as lower ranks. What looks at first like a gung ho tribute to a great Canadian turns out to be much, much more. Plays about the Great War are popping up all over the place at the moment, but this is one of the most interesting and Billy’s moment of catharsis when he resists the attempt, Ball having been killed, of the top brass to take him out of the conflict and exploit his celebrity as a war hero chills the blood. These were very young men most of whom, as Billy says, never got old.

Billy Bishop: Charles Aitken.

Older Billy Bishop: Oliver Beamish.

Director: Jimmy Walters.

Designer: Daisy Blower.

Lighting Designer: Arnim Friess.

Sound Designer: Dinah Mullen.

Musical Director: Adam Gerber.

Photography: S R Taylor.



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