BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR written and composed by John Gray and Eric Peterson, directed by Ted Dykstra (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Runs to Aug 29. $5-$68. 416-866-8666. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
Billy Bishop goes to war changed my life.
An evocative and very faithful CBC Radio rendition of the 1978 show helped nurture my love of theatre, showing me what it’s possible to do with words, music and text. I didn’t see a full version of the piece until years later, when Canadian Stage remounted it in the cavernous Bluma Appel in 1998.
Now, in a new Soulpepper production at the Young Centre, John Gray and Eric Peterson’s chronicle of the life of the Owen Sound boy turned First World War flying ace has been given the intimacy it deserves, and the show simply soars.
The fact that Gray, who plays the piano and sings, and actor Peterson are now in their early 60s, the same age Bishop was when he died, adds to the poignancy. Theatre is a living, changing thing, and as Peterson points out in the production’s program notes, the show is as much about their friendship over the years as it is Bishop’s story. It’s about survival of all kinds – including that of artist and audience.
Clad in pyjamas and an old robe and surrounded by war paraphernalia, a few suitcases and archival photos that will take on significance during the course of a swift two hours, Peterson brings to life Bishop’s checkered school career, his early experiences in the cavalry and the chance meeting in a bar that eventually gets him up in the air, shooting down the Hun, bringing glory to the Empire and eventually making him a war hero and figurehead.
Director Ted Dykstra’s production is perfection. Peterson knows how to build tension, milk the most from a joke and – something that only comes with time – how to savour his lines so the words create all sorts of different meanings. Playing everything from a bumbling British bureaucrat to a snobbish dowager to a French chanteuse, he’s always likeable, and Gray gets in a few laughs when they play off each other.
Camellia Koo’s set and Lorenzo Savoini’s lighting reveal their surprises slowly, climaxing in a highly effective scene where Peterson mounts the grand piano and manoeuvres a toy plane, the backdrop behind him emerging subtly.
To be fair, not all of Gray’s music has fared equally well over time, but there’s lots of sophistication in the clever pastiche of period ditties, novelty tunes and contemporary ballads. When Peterson launches into a heartbreaking a cappella version of the show’s melancholy main song near the end, you won’t want it to finish, although you know it must.