Wednesday, April 15, 2015
A Review of Billy Bishop Goes to War
Amana - At the talk-back after the first performance of this production, one of the first questions from the audience asked if Billy Bishop was a real person. As the actor responded (and as I knew from a little preparatory reading), Billy Bishop was indeed a real person, a Canadian pilot who flew fighter planes in World War I and again in World War II. Bishop lived from 1894 to 1956 and was Canada’s leading flying ace.
Billy Bishop survives in a play by John Gray in collaboration with Eric Peterson who provided music as accompaniment and as songs. I have to admit I didn’t expect this. I had anticipated Billy singing songs of the period such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and, perhaps, the Canadian national anthem (years before the current anthem, O Canada). Instead, there was musical support brilliantly provided by Andrew Crowe, accompanist and narrator. Crowe’s musical talents are impressive, not only on the piano but on the harmonica and violin. He also supports Vaughan Irving (Billy Bishop) in some of the songs. Irving and Crowe bring Billy Bishop vividly to life on the tiny stage of Old Creamery Theatre’s Studio Theatre.
Bishop didn’t start out as a distinguished person; he was at best a mediocre student. Once he talked himself into a place at the Royal Military Academy of Canada where he failed his first year for cheating. Rather surprisingly, he was allowed to continue. But when war broke out in 1914 he left the Academy and joined a cavalry regiment where he became disillusioned by the mud and dirt of the ground war. The sight of a military aircraft captured his attention and fulfilled his desire to leave the dirt behind for the sky because "it’s clean up there." Billy Bishop became a true flying ace accumulating ranks and decoration (some medals presented by the King of England).
Vaughan Irving gives us not only a fully realized Billy, but convincingly portrays other people with whom Billy interacts. He even gives us a skillful and tasteful portrait of a night club chanteuse. Irving has a remarkable ability to talk to the audience—not just facing the audience and saying lines but actually carrying on a (one-sided, to be sure) conversation with his audience.
In fairness, I have to admit to relying on the internet for many details of Billy Bishop’s life and career. Even without the preparation I had done, this production featuring Irving’s powerful acting and Crowe’s amazing music and narration creates an indelible impression of Canada’s flying ace. Directed by Sean McCall with the taste and skill I have come to expect from his work, and beautifully executed period costumes by Marquetta Senters, this production is nothing short of a magnificent theatrical experience
Billy Bishop runs through April 26 at the Studio Theatre. Tickets available here. Don’t miss it.