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‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 2 out of 5 stars
Billy Bishop Goes to War, Southwark Playhouse
© Nick RutterCharles Aitken (Younger Billy), Oliver Beamish (Older Billy)

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Pointless revival of this two-hander musical about a Canadian flying ace

What is the point of this? As in, what possible reason could there be for reviving this? John Gray and Eric Peterson’s ‘Billy Bishop Goes To War’ is a two-man musical about a prolific Canadian airman in the First World War, but whereas modern theatrical approaches to WWI tend to focus on the tragedy and trauma, this 1978 work is weirdly, uncomfortably triumphant.

It’s pretty basic, structurally. Two versions of the title character – one old and nostalgic, one young and virile – weave together songs and straightforward storytelling, passing the linear, A-to-B narrative between them. We follow Bishop from Canadian military school, across the Atlantic, and into the Royal Flying Corps, where he proceeds to shoot down tens of German planes and earn himself a chestful of medals.

It’s not wildly satirical like ‘Catch-22’, or brutally bleak like ‘Journey’s End’. There are occasional hints at something more sombre, but for the most part this plays out like a comic-strip story in the ‘Victor Book for Boys’ – it revels in Bishop’s wildcard derring-do, his daring night-time raids, and the rapid rattle of his machine guns. It genuinely feels like this show’s target audience might be Just William.

It’s also two-and-a-quarter hours long, and with only two performers on stage, that feels like an awful long time. The songs don’t help – faintly jaunty, faintly sad, faintly colonial tunes about flying around and fighting ‘the Hun’ – and, despite the hardworking, multi-roling efforts of co-stars Charles Aitken and Oliver Beamish, the evening drags. 

This is the second fringe run for Jimmy Walters’s production, after appearing at Jermyn Street Theatre last autumn. God knows how it has managed that. The whole thing is excruciatingly anachronistic.

Written by
Fergus Morgan


£14-£22, £18 concs. Runs 2hr 15min
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