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Theatre Review: Billy Bishop Goes to war @ Jermyn Street Theatre


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“I’m sorry to inconvenience you, but I saw your performance. It reminded me so much of my grandfather that I had to meet you”.

Standing outside Jermyn Street Theatre, actor, Charles Aitken is approached by an older gentleman with a bike. The older man, Adam, looks both happy and emotional as he tells the actor playing Billy Bishop of his grandfather’s adventures as a pilot in WW1. “He was my best friend and I just want to ask.. Can I give you a hug?”. The two men embrace and part, the young actor standing outside the theatre, the audience member jumping back on his bike and riding out in the streets of London.

Jimmy Walter’s version of Billy Bishop Goes To War does something as rare building a bridge between generations, and that is just one of the things making this production a must-see.

When John Maclachlan Gray, in collaboration with the original actor, Eric Peterson, created Billy Bishop Goes To War, the show was a two-man show, with Peterson playing the role of Billy multi-rolling as all other characters, and Gray accompanying on piano and supporting during the songs.

Director Jimmy Walters has reformed the original idea by creating a version where Billy Bishop’s story is told by two men, making the role of the Piano Player much more central than it was first intended.

As the musical opens on Daisy Blower’s realistic set design of a memory filled living room, an older Billy Bishop (Oliver Beamish) is walking around mumbling to himself. As he touches objects you see memories spark in his eyes, and he sits down at the piano and starts singing and telling the story. Soon the door opens and the young Billy Bishop, played by Charles Aitken, enters bringing to life the youth in the story.

The narrational shifts between the two characters are so slick that the idea of them being the same person isn’t questioned for a moment. The Piano Player has become the Billy Bishop of the present and, as the story continues, the two Billys deliver with verve and vigour, sharing the supporting characters, singing the songs beautifully and telling the story extremely effectively.

Both actors transition in and out of the characters fluently and the relationship between the two is amazing. They are so in tune with each other that there isn’t even the smallest hint of a slipup, even when they share lines or have quick changes in character.

What really has to be highlighted is the amazing performance of Aitken. He manages to be theatrical but still so real that you feel every moment of Billy’s journey. What is truly captivating about Aitkens is how you’re never in doubt that this is Billy telling the story. It doesn’t feel like an actor portraying other characters, but Billy finding his way in telling his life story, with whatever devices needed to make an impact.

There is no doubt that this is a portrait of an amazing man and storyteller (however much is truth or fiction) and, with this pair of actors telling the story, the audience is crying one moment and laughing the next. This is a story of an older man looking back at his younger self, reminiscing about the life he has led and making peace with it. Aitken's passionate portrait of the young, charming Billy becoming a man through the terror and fear of war is something that every theatre lover should go to see.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is at Jermyn Street Theatre until November 24th. For more information and tickets click here.

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