Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Still flying high 40 years after its creation, the award-winning Billy Bishop Goes to War returns to the Young Centre. Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson, and directed by Ted Dykstra, Soulpepper brings Billy Bishop back to the stage in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday.
Pulling dusty sheets from the piano, an easy chair, and a series of foot lockers and trunks, Bishop (Peterson) appears in pajamas, dressing gown and slippers. Despite the sense that we are here with him out of time and space, it’s as if we’ve woken him from a snooze. The foot lockers are a treasure trove of memorabilia and props for his story, as he dusts off memories, producing props and gear; and the framed photographs he produces along the way serve as poignant snapshots of moments and lives lived.
Through anecdotes, songs, poetry and letters to Bishop’s sweetheart Margaret back home, Peterson and Gray weave a tale of a life that was part luck, part pluck and all present. Going from the worst student at the Royal Military College (RMC)—known as a liar, a cheat and general executer of shenanigans—to an officer in the cavalry, Bishop always had an eye out for opportunity and adventure. Growing tired of being stuck in the mud or covered in sand, he looked for a way out of the cavalry. In his case, up and out. Finding his way into the Royal Flying Corps, he was taken on as an observer—a good job for him, as he was also known for his hawk eye and being a good shot—later becoming a pilot with the assistance of Lady St. Helier, who he met and befriended while recuperating in a London hospital (his tendency toward being accident prone bringing him good luck on several occasions).
As a pilot, he found a particular sense of drive and ambition, developing a friendly rivalry with fellow pilot Captain Albert Ball, and becoming famous for flying solo missions, including an attack on a German aerodrome; endeavours that earned medals, including the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross. Realizing the colonies were more apt to respond to a living hero than a dead one, his British superiors gave him a new assignment, to return home as a hero and public figure, boosting morale in Canada.
Gray (on stage as the Piano Player) and Peterson are a perfect match for this journey of an unlikely hero. In addition to acting as accompanist and singer, his gentle, raspy vocals performing catchy, often moving songs, Gray takes on the roles of army buddy and audience for Bishop, as well as a number of brief moments as various other characters as needed. And Peterson juggles a number of characters in addition to Bishop, including particularly fun turns as a befuddled British officer, a drunken Scot, the imperious and proper Lady St. Helier, and the slinky chanteuse Hélène.
Foot lockers, a stand-up ash tray and a miniature of Bishop’s famous plane, as well as shadow play and projections on the upstage scrim, are used to great effect to re-enact observer flights, the first solo flight and dog fights. Peterson’s playful scallywag adventurer performance as Bishop is balanced by moments of profound poignancy: his recitation of a poem to Albert Ball, and memories of the dead and dying, in the trenches or in the sky. And when Bishop returns to us in the present, it’s like we’re spending time with a grandfather, a beloved rascal regaling us with tall tales of the war, at times appearing lost in thought or memory. For better or worse, these things happened—and they shaped a life and a career.
With big shouts to the design team—Camellia Koo (set and costumes), Steve Lucas (lighting) and director Ted Dykstra (sound)—for their work on bringing this adventure in storytelling to life.
Still soaring after all these years. Playful, irreverent and thoughtful ruminations on the nature of war and heroism in the entertaining, poignant Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Billy Bishop Goes to War continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.
Check out the 2017 trailer: