The creative team of John Gray and Eric Peterson has reunited after 20 years to star in a new Canadian Stage Company production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, which opened September 24 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in The St Lawrence Centre for the Arts. This famous and uniquely Canadian play has been on the Southwestern Ontario reviewing agenda of these writers for at least two seasons and only now have we had the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. Well-deserved fuss. This wonderful play with music (not quite a musical) is a historical, funny and eloquent study of the greatest allied ace of the First World War. John Gray, writer and composer of seven musicals including the award-winning Rock and Roll, reunited with Eric Peterson (forever identified with Street Legal) for a cross-country anniversary tour of Billy Bishop. Twenty years after its first performance, this reworked production launches the CSC's mainstage season, following which it will travel to Vancouver, Winnipeg, London and Ottawa.
Billy Bishop follows the outrageous career and humourous misadventures of William Avery Bishop (Eric Peterson), a young Canadian from Owen Sound, Ontario who won fame and glory for Canada. John Gray plays his piano-playing partner in the retelling of the tale. In the original staged version, the story ends in 1942 with a middle-aged Billy Bishop pinning wings on Second World War pilots. This production begins from there and explores Bishop's famed aerial exploits in flashback. Reminiscing, Bishop relives his days at the Royal Military College in Kingston, through his first bumbling attempts and later triumphs with the Royal Flying Corps, and into his twilight years with the recruitment drives of the Second World War.
Billy was credited with an incredible 72 victories. A fellow pilot accurately described him as "a fantastic shot but a terrible pilot," a skill which Peterson accurately portrays in several hilarious scenes. A flamboyant extrovert, (Peterson's Billy is somewhat quieter) he was the first Canadian airman to win the Victoria Cross, awarded for a single-handed dawn attack on a German airfield on 2 June 1917. This heroic act is imaginatively captured during the brilliantly realized second act, and has the audience members nervously perched on the edge of their seats. Billy's last victory came on June 19, 1918, when he claimed 5 enemy aircraft. In August he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and helped organize an abortive two-squadron Canadian Air Force in England. After the war Bishop operated a commercial flying enterprise before he went into sales promotion in England and Canada. During the Second World War he was an honorary air marshal in the RCAF.
Gray and Peterson were inspired to write Billy Bishop Goes to War after reading Winged Warfare, an autobiographical account of the 21-year-old flying ace. One of the most successful plays in the Canadian repertoire, Billy Bishop Goes to War has been seen by more than 350,000 people in over 50 cities in Canada, the United States and Britain. The play won the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in 1981 and the Chalmer's Canadian Play Award in 1982. The televised version was seen by millions of viewers around the world and won the Actra Award for Best Television Program in 1982.
Peterson created the role of Bishop and he renews his relationship with the colourful character with verve and vigor. He is so engrossing in the role that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing it, creating a real relationship with the audience while his formidable acting and comedic abilities allow him to pull it all off in style. He also plays a host of hilarious supporting characters such as a lady of nobility and a female French cabaret singer.
John Gray's music was the surprise of the evening. His beautifully crafted melodies enhanced Bishop's story in several ways; the amusing anecdotes were made even more so, and the bittersweet moments were truly heart-tugging. The two men command a presence on stage with their unique chemistry.
The set of Billy Bishop Goes to War is designed by Sue Le Page with lighting design by Kevin Lamotte. Their combined talents allow the rather spare stage to become an aerial battlefield, a speakeasy, a regimental headquarters, and a wealthy home. Mr Lamotte's well-documented talents just get better and better. The final fade out of Billy's salute to the audience illustrates that less is more. It is a wonderfully effective coda.
Billy Bishop Goes to War is a uniquely Canadian opus that should be seen by adults and children alike. It showcases a genuine national hero whose memory should never be extinguished. It plays to Saturday, October 31, 1998. Performance times are Monday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call The Canadian Stage Box Office at (416) 368-3110 or TicketMaster at (416) 872-1111. Prices range from $25 - $55 with excellent discounts for students, seniors and groups. A limited amount of pay-what-you-can tickets available on Monday evening performances, and rush seats half an hour before each performance.
After viewing the play "A Common Man's Guide to Loving Women" this past Saturday night, I felt compelled to write a common man's feedback on the content and the performance. On the whole, the play was interesting. The theatre was cozy, the set was appropriate and the cast put on an entertaining show.
The plot moved along fairly well for most of the play. One
part I felt was awkward was when Robin (Andrew's character) started
to talk about his childhood trauma about being raped. The context
of that discussion, in my opinion, seemed to detract from the
storyline. The depth of emotional transgression, at that moment
seemed out of context with the rest of the story. (i.e. it got
much too deep for a comedy about man's view of women). It was,
to me, similar to gratuitous sex or violence
without the proper context.
I certainly understand the point of the personal struggle that Robin was trying to convey to Chris, but for a comedy about man-women relationships, it was a particularly awkward moment for the audience. Once Robin's discourse was finished the dialogue continued on a higher-level emotional plane as it had before. I would recommend to substitute another storyline experience of Robin's into that spot. (the analogy of his pre-marital sexual intercourse encounter with his wife at his parent's house would just as easily fit the bill at this moment).
The group of people that attended the performance with my wife and I also shared this view. We also felt that an appearance of a woman (the woman they were waiting for) would have made a nice break in the tension. Perhaps this could even go at the ending (since I really can't remember much of the ending, anyway). It needs to be stronger on the finish.
Other than that, the performance was very good. I particularly enjoyed watching Andrew Jason Wade as "Greg". He seemed to have a great deal of fun with his role, and that made for an enjoyable performance. Derwin Jordin as "Chris" also shone with good range of emotion and dynamics. Conrad played the "bitter young man" part fairly well, however it would have been nice to seem some diversity. His moping around got to be a bit much.