Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company presents Eric Peterson and John Gray in a revival of their landmark Canadian play, Billy Bishop Goes to War at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts through August 4, 2011.
Billy Bishop Goes to War is an iconic Canadian play. First written and performed by Eric Peterson and John Gray in 1978, the show has toured extensively across Canada, performed at the Edinburgh Festival and has enjoyed runs in London’s West End and on Broadway. In fact, it’s one of only four Canadian shows to have played on a Broadway stage and remains one of the most-produced Canadian plays of all time.
Throughout the years Eric Peterson and John Gray have repeatedly re-visited Billy Bishop Goes to War and have updated the play along the way. The two performers are now sixty-two years old; the same age Bishop was when he died. This current version of the play features an aging Billy Bishop at home in his pajamas reminiscing about his past glories from afar.
Considering how prolific this play has been, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t seen it until now. Going in, I was only vaguely aware of who Billy Bishop was from high school history; World War I flying ace, record number of kills, awarded the Victoria Cross and namesake for the Toronto Island Airport.
Eric Peterson plays the title role and a host of other characters in the show. John Gray provides the piano accompaniment and narrates. Throughout the course of the show Billy Bishop recounts his story of how he went from being “the worst student in the history of RMC (Royal Military College)” to becoming one of Canada’s most decorated war heroes.
Along the way there are riveting accounts of aerial battles that Bishop enthusiastically re-enacts complete with his own spate of sound effects.
Bishop tells his story with the kind of braggadocio that’s rare for a Canadian figure. There were times when I felt like the show glossed over the horrors of war because of its jingoistic tone. However, the fact that the British always viewed Bishop as a lesser “colonial” meant that in many ways he was still an underdog; a quintessentially Canadian quality that makes his character relatable and ultimately gives us a reason to root for him.
I’m fascinated by the way the play is structured. It’s really a form of narrative storytelling. There are songs and movement but it’s not a musical per se, where the action stops and the performers randomly burst into song. The music and movement is organically integrated into the whole of the piece. Songs and melodies weave in and out of Bishop’s narrative and the stylized movement elements flow seamlessly from the action.
John Gray and Eric Peterson are venerable stage performers. Their long history with Billy Bishop Goes to War is evident. They know this play inside and out and perform it with an immediacy and understanding that nobody else can bring to the piece.
My friend Marty who only knew of Eric Peterson as Oscar from Corner Gas was surprised at how versatile his performance was, “I didn’t know he could sing and he’s very spry for a 62-year-old.” Indeed, throughout the show Peterson dances, climbs up set pieces and at one point even stands on top of the grand piano.
This third Soulpepper production of Billy Bishop Goes to War is also very much a celebration of the show. Director Ted Dykstra pays homage by including several interesting and subtle meta-references to the play itself.
For example, the luggage pieces strewn about the set are all painted with the phrase “Billy Bishop Props” followed by the names of the venues and cities the show has previously played. The actors first enter through the house and briefly acknowledge the audience’s applause before the start of each act. Also, production credit pages from the playbills of several earlier productions of the play can be seen around the theatre alongside sepia-toned images of Billy Bishop himself.
If you’ve seen previous productions of Billy Bishop Goes to War, the current Soulpepper Theatre production is worth watching to see how the show has evolved. If you’ve never seen the play before, you owe it to yourself to see this production of a classic Canadian play performed by the two men who created the show.
- Billy Bishop Goes to War by Soulpepper Theatre Company
- Written and performed by Eric Peterson and John Gray
- Directed by Ted Dykstra
- Runs until August 4, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located at 55 Mill Street, Building 49, in the Distillery Historic District.
- Tickets range from $28 – $65 (plus HST) and are available by calling the Young Centre box office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting www.soulpepper.ca.
- $22 tickets are available for 21-30 year-olds at www.stageplay.ca.
– Eric Peterson – Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann