Billy Bishop Goes to War

It’s hard to review a classic. I mean a classic is generally a classic for a reason — because it’s so darn good. And Billy Bishop Goes to War — that classic of Canadian theatre — is no exception to that rule. I confess to being extremely excited when I saw it on the Rodeo’s bill this year.

Billy Bishop was one of the first shows I ever saw although not starring its creators — Eric Peterson and John Gray. I was interested to see how the show would be with the guys who actually dreamed it up in the first place how my perspective might alter after seeing it a second time ’round and how the feel of the show would change with Peterson’s and Gray’s advanced years. (The script remains essentially unchanged since they first premiered the work in 1978 more than 30 years ago.)

Let me begin by saying I loved Billy Bishop when I first saw it years ago and I love it now.

When Eric Peterson (of Corner Gas fame) takes the stage as an aged Billy Bishop wearing pyjamas and a red housecoat to recall/re-live/recount his memories and exploits as a Canadian World War One ace he’s instantly likeable.

While John Gray accompanies him on the piano and throws in the occasional aside Billy Bishop is essentially a one-man show. Peterson plays more than a dozen different characters ranging from a severe old British woman who becomes something of a guardian to Bishop to a clueless English recruiting officer to a French nightclub singer. He transitions from one to another effortlessly and makes each character completely distinct from the last. I was sitting close enough to the stage to see the incredible "mobility" of Peterson’s facial muscles. He didn’t even look like the same person sometimes as he adopted different characters.

The humour is gentle filled with plenty of Canadian "colonial" jokes. Peterson has the crowd chuckling throughout most of the evening because while the play acknowledges the sadness and futility of war it does remain pretty light and humorous most of the time. Peterson’s comic timing is impeccable and he paces the show in such a way that there are plenty of peaks and valleys for the audience to experience which makes for an interesting theatrical journey.

While I feel the show has more vitality and vigour with a younger actor in the role of Bishop (as I previously saw it) I also recognize the play is probably better suited for an older actor. Peterson’s more advanced years give the story a sense of pathos as he reflects on the daring and sorrows of his youth that is lost with a younger actor in the character’s shoes.

One of my favourite parts about Billy Bishop Goes to War is the music. With pieces like the "Empire Soiree" it’s soft and haunting. Gray’s voice is gravelly and at times barely audible but it lends to the somewhat ethereal quality of the whole production.

Listen for a poem about British war ace Albert Ball. That’s another favourite moment as Peterson works himself up to a fever pitch about the British liking their heroes "cold and dead" and how a young man at war shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to survive.

My only criticism is the night I went I couldn’t always understand what Peterson was saying on stage and I was sitting in the third row. It seems so basic but it would really help if he slowed down and projected a bit more. Other than that Billy Bishop Goes to War is engaging from start to finish and I highly recommend people take this opportunity to see a piece of Canadian theatrical history.

Show runs until January 22 at the Max Bell Theatre.