Review: Billy Bishop Goes to War – not the transformative evening of theatre I was hoping for

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I have a confession to make.  Billy Bishop Goes to War has a huge place in my heart as it is one of three plays (ask me some other time about the other two) that transformed me into the theatre lover I am today.   And while I don’t believe this Arts Club production will have the same transformative effect on audiences as the original, it does a respectful job in introducing a new generation of theatergoers to this quintessentially Canadian piece of theatre.

Billy Bishop Goes to WarBilly Bishop Goes to War tells of the rather colourful career of Canadian war hero William Avery Bishop (Ryan Beil) as he recounts his life from his days at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario through to his time as a fighter pilot in World War I where he was ultimately credited with some 72 air victories.

Beil is definitely at his best in the first act, introducing us to the rather aloof and irreverent Bishop as he regales us of his time from the RMC through to his first forays into the air.  In this first act, Beil manages the necessary bravado as Bishop tells of his various adventures but with a twinge of fear lying just beneath the surface; he is simultaneously the invincible young soldier and the frightened young man that would rather be anywhere else than at war.

In act one we witness as Bishop moves from cavalry to airplane observer and ultimately to the fighter pilot for which he is to become famous.  In one scene where Bishop takes his first solo flight, Beil works his way high atop a large stepladder moving up and down the rungs as he recounts his initial take-off, and more importantly, his first landing.

Not only does Beil embrace the thrill Bishop has in this first solo flight but the scene is wonderfully accented by Scenery Designer Kevin McAllister’s abstract sculpture hung high above center stage which almost magically transforms into a plane.  Lighting Designer Itai Erdal provides the final element to create a magnificent picture.

By the time the second act comes along the audience is sufficiently primed for more of Bishop’s stories but to me it felt that Beil had run out of steam.  The second act contains the recounting of one of Bishop’s most daring missions to destroy a German aerodrome and while there is some inventive use of props here, it simply couldn’t match the intensity of the story of his first flight in act one.

Accompanying Bishop on stage is Piano Player, et al. (Zachary Gray) who provides musical accompaniment and some additional character support.  The ‘et al.’ here refers to the fact that it in this new version Gray plays not only the piano but also the acoustic and electric guitar.

And here is where I had my biggest problem with the show, not because I am a BBGTW purist yearning for the simplicity of just a piano, but because while the acoustic guitar works, the electric guitar was simply too overpowering for Beil to overcome.

Since the electric guitar is used during two of the most intense and exciting scenes of the play, Beil is simply drowned out most of the stories are lost.  Coupled with what appeared to be a loss of energy in the second act, Beil simply is unable to compete against the noise.  To be clear though, Gray can’t take all the responsibility for this as that must rest with Director Sarah Rodgers.

Director Rodgers makes good use of the stage although I did find the decision to place Gray so far upstage right a little curious as I found a lot of times neither he nor Beil had the lung power to project downstage and into the theatre when they sang.  And while I admired the conversion of what appeared to be random objects into something unexpected in the second act, I was a little disappointed that I saw these merely mostly just well-placed props rather than objects that the actors had used prior to that conversion.

Perhaps I was hoping for something that this production, or any production of Billy Bishop Goes to War simply cannot attain: a transformative evening of theatre like I had experienced with the original.

But really, is that too much to hope for?

3 1/2 of 5 StarsBilly Bishop Goes to War
Arts Club Granville Island Stage
25 March – 17 April 2010

This tour de force—featuring a pianist and one actor playing 18 characters—follows the trajectory of Billy Bishop’s career from ne’er-do-well cavalry officer to the nation’s most-decorated soldier. Both comic and dramatic, the myth of the daring WWI flying ace is told through story and song in one of the most popular musicals in the Canadian canon. Tickets available online or by calling 604.687.1644.

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