Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: 'Billy Bishop Goes To War' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 1st November 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Star

There are no heroes in war, but John Gray's 1978 musical Billy Bishop Goes To War puts a lot of effort into trying to disprove that. Based on the life of Canadian fighter pilot William Bishop (played by Charles Aitken & Oliver Beamish), this is a two-man musical that takes us from his days as "the worst student" in an Officer's Academy, through the Great War and into his old age.

Let's put my cards on the table from the start. I have a deep and abiding dislike of anything that glorifies war, which includes what British hawks have transformed Armistice Day into. Harry Patch, the longest-surviving combat soldier of World War I famously said: "War is organised murder and nothing else”. He died aged 111 in 2009, and now that he's not around to argue back, politicians have seized upon Remembrance Sunday as an opportunity for militaristic nationalist sentiment.

All of which makes this cheery, upbeat tale of a man who murdered 72 people curdle in the mouth. Now, I don't think the producers and creative team behind the show set out to intentionally make a pro-war piece of theatre. After all, the artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, Tom Littler says in the programme: 
"When I was asked to do it I said no. I'm as liberal and anti-war as any other theatre director. [But] when I put it on stage I was staggered by how wrong I had been. If you've arrived with anything like my prejudices, I hope you'll be similarly converted."
I wasn't. 

The show is basically an uncritical Boy's Own story about a man who began killing people, realised he was good at it and thoroughly enjoyed it. This transformation doesn't go without comment, with Bishop explaining in letters home to his sweetheart that he's surprised by how "bloodthirsty" he's become, excitedly explaining the thrill of hitting someone's fuel line and incinerating them in mid-air, and at one point waxing orgasmic about the prospect of machine-gunning sleeping men in their beds.

There is a moment of self-reflection when he destroys a plane and watches the pilots free-falling to their deaths, but given that he's soon eager to jump back into the fight and continue increasing his kill-streak the sight obviously didn't make that big of an impact on him.

Perhaps - perhaps - I'd have more sympathy for Bishop if he'd been conscripted into service, but he signed up of his own volition, has many opportunities to leave the war and simply doesn't seem to give much of a shit about the reasons for what he's doing. The play concludes with a rousing propaganda speech by the now elderly Bishop as he attempts to recruit future soldiers - which may as well be a paid advertisement for the modern military.

What is there to take away from Billy Bishop Goes To War? That military service is the ticket to admiration and fame? That killing people at the behest of the upper-class is actually kinda cool? That, from a certain perspective, the industrial-scale slaughter of human beings can actually be kinda fun and fulfilling? It just seems a bit tasteless to put on such an ooh-rah piece of pro-Great War propaganda in the week running up the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

Compounding all this is Charles Aitken's portrayal of the young Billy Bishop. Aitken quickly proves himself a deeply talented performer with charisma to spare. He's a pleasure to watch, effortlessly swashbuckling, rogueish and handsome - there's something of Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart in the way he struts about the stage in his fancy leather coat. But, perversely, Aitken being so good only makes the show's pro-war lean that much more pronounced. 

And so, intentionally or not, Billy Bishop Goes To War ends up feeling monstrous: a toe-tappin' and smile-inducin' good times romp about a man who just looooved to kill people. 

I should say that the Jermyn Street Theatre is also staging Michael Mear's This Evil Thing over the Remembrance period, which is about the misery and injustice inflicted upon conscientious objectors during the Great War. Everything I've heard about that production makes it sound fantastic, and perhaps that's so anti-war that Billy Bishop was chosen as a counterbalance. I wish I'd seen that and not this.

Billy Bishop Goes To War is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 November. Tickets here.

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