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Billy Bishop Goes to War: A review

October 12, 2012
Somehow, it doesn’t seem like theatre at all. The Globe’s production of Billy Bishop Goes to War has the comfortable feel of a social evening at home in the living room after supper on a night when the company happens to include a particularly congenial individual, a relative, say, or a neighbour, a friend, a colleague, who has a knack for spinning a tale and isn’t above augmenting it with voice characterizations and physical gestures, and combines all of that to keep his “audience” enthralled to the last word.

But Billy Bishop IS theatre, of course, and it’s theatre done at a high level, professional and polished, and presented in a manner that does justice to the show’s creators, John Gray and Eric Peterson, who would be pleased with it, I’m sure, if it isn’t presumptuous of me to say so. It’s also a reminder that nothing beats a good story well told, and that we Canadians rank right up there with the best of storytellers anywhere, even if we need someone from beyond our borders to tell us this.

The production marks the Globe debut of Max Reimer, who is one of Canada’s foremost directors and certainly no stranger to the battlefield himself, albeit in a slightly different context. Reimer stages Billy Bishop with an understated nobility that not only reflects his nationality but reveals the still-fresh scars of the years he spent as artistic managing director of the Vancouver Playhouse, doomed and under siege, where he was parachuted into a hopeless situation because he was needed there, and heroically fought the good fight to the bitter end.

The star of the show is Jacob James, who not so long ago performed the role of the First World War flying ace, at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Ontario, just down Highway 401, appropriately enough, from Royal Military College in Kingston, where Bishop was a student and where this tale begins. James is a man of diverse talents, and Lord knows he needs all of them here. Like Reimer, he is new to the Globe, and to his credit, he has made a positive and lasting first impression. As the only actor in the piece, he has an enormous load on his shoulders, and he carries it not like a burden but in a way that suggests he enjoyed every second.

There is 200 pages of script, and the running time is two hours. James is onstage for the entire period, save for a break late in the second half that amounts to maybe a couple of minutes. He tells the story in prose and in poetry, and of course he sings. The show deals with serious topics in a lighthearted manner (don’t let the laughter fool you, war is hell) and the mood swings from beer-parlour hilarity to graveyard solemnity as the action goes from Canada to England and Europe, then back again. James himself is constantly on the move, as dictated by theatre-in-the-round, and yet, remarkably, not a word is sacrificed. Yes, he is miked, which certainly helps, but it is eloquence and articulation that carry the day.

Between start and finish, some 20 different characters take the stage, male and female, teenage to middle years, and James melds them so seamlessly that I almost forgot to mention it. He does accents, needless to say, and does so in a way that juxtaposes the boldness and brashness of the establishment Brits with the modesty and humility of a young man from the colonies. A Canadian, eh? The symbolism is important, because Billy Bishop is not only the story of a youth growing into adulthood but also that of a country emerging from the shadows of the Empire. Billy Bishop and his country are heroic in their own way.

James is extremely fortunate, and grateful, no doubt, to have Zachary Flis assisting him with all of this as the Piano Player, who is so much more than simply an accompanist. Positioned at stage level, Flis engages James in dialogue, as an actor, and as a musician he provides songs and score and the occasional sound effect as well.

The inspired set, designed by Scott Penner, is a hangar, and the props consist mostly of wooden crates of various sizes that can be moved around easily, and which serve at one point or another as everything from an administrator’s desk to a pilot’s cockpit, if you use your imagination. These crates are also containers, for storing things, which makes it possible for James to change costume without leaving the stage.

The most endearing quality of the lighting, by Robert Thomson, is that it evokes both the ground, naturally, and the skies above, which is no small trick.

The thankless task of costume design fell to Emma Williams. I say “thankless” because this is a period piece, and with period pieces the operative word is “authentic” as opposed to “imaginative.” If the costume designer gets it wrong, she is taken to task. If she gets it right, she is taken for granted. It’s the nature of the beast. Lest we forget, and this applies to all three designers, there are decorated heroes and there are unsung heroes as well.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Globe Theatre website at www.globetheatrelive.com.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary Smith permalink
    October 14, 2012 3:05 am

    I was fortunate enough to see Jacob as Billy Bishop last year in Gananoque, and I know he’ll be just as impressive in Regina. Such a talented young man!

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