Review - Billy Bishop Goes to War at Southwark Playhouse
We first meet Billy Bishop in 1950, a war veteran with a comfortable family life in Canada and a story to tell. Sharing the stage with his younger self the two recount Billy’s deployment with the cavalry to Britain in 1914, and his subsequent journey to becoming the most decorated fighter pilot the colonies had ever seen.
The play has a pleasant lightness, and an energy plucked from a wartime propaganda campaign. Billy (Oliver Beamish) is cheery, optimistic, and totally un-British in his intensity. But Charles Aitken, as the younger Billy, brilliantly conveys the character’s enthusiasm, and truly is the beating heart of the play. His performance is very collaborative, and feels quite like stand-up comedy in this regard. He frequently interacts with the audience, breaking the fourth wall to give an ironic smile when a “pun-intended” joke slips through the net. Whilst this certainly lifts the energy in the room, it does mean that we cannot suspend our disbelief, for we may be called upon again to bolster our actor with additional applause.
Beamish too delivers a good performance, and adopts a number of different roles. All sit within the same universe of character (the butler, the officer, the military doctor) but his great stature and marvellously expressive eyebrows make him the ideal conduit of early twentieth-century haughtiness.
Both actors are capable singers, which is important, not least in a musical performed in such an intimate setting where everything is heard and nothing can be hidden. Some songs serve the play by evoking a wartime atmosphere, and the two performed by Aitken as Lady St Helier and the Lovely Helene respectively are rich with the jovial comedy of the My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins variety. But at times the music interrupts the emotional trajectory of the scene. When Billy finds two soldiers dead in the trenches, the song he sings is not quite melancholic enough to bring the audience to a climactic point of real sadness.
This is a very physical production, and there are moments of convincing physical theatre. When the young Billy goes into the air for the first time, Aitken adopts a balancing attitude that wonderfully captures both the momentum and precariousness of ascending in a WWI propeller plane. This indeed is what the play does best: evoking the joy of flying, with Billy’s wide-eyed wonder as he soars over the battlefields. However, at other times – bracing himself against the wind, pulling his leg out of the mud, or flying around the stage like an aeroplane – the impression is more one of an excited toddler, or an exercise in a drama workshop.
The show is rich with comedy, which has a sense of the Vaudeville. There is even a burlesque number performed quite convincingly by Aitken. There are more profound moments that touch on death and loss, but these never quite transcend the comedic essence of the production. This means that the glories of war are ultimately conveyed with more conviction than the horrors, leaving the play feeling somewhat dated in its message.
This is a charming, nostalgic production that is carried capably by the two actors. It is a shame that the sounds of the adjacent restaurant could be heard throughout the performance, as this was particularly distracting in the more emotional scenes. But whilst the play may not succeed in transporting its audience back to wartime Britain, it more than likely will lift them a few thousand feet in the air.