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Billy Bishop Goes to War

Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company presents an excellent revival of this trailblazing work about a Canadian war hero, featuring original stars and co-creators Eric Peterson and John Gray.

Eric Peterson in Billy Bishop Goes to War
(© Cylla von Tiedemann)
History writers must often cautiously select their heroes on a case-by-case basis, which is why some truly magnificent people haven't found their rightful place in the records of time despite their magnanimous contributions. However, that wasn't the case with Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, a 20-year-old Royal Military College misfit destined for expulsion after being caught cheating on an exam, but who was catapulted to figurehead status during WW I -- and whose story is recounted in Billy Bishop Goes to War, which is now receiving a truly excellent revival at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company with original stars and co-creators Eric Peterson and John Gray.

The play (which had an extremely brief Broadway run in 1980) resoundingly salutes Canada's flying ace, who decommissioned 72 enemy aircraft and became the first fighter pilot to attack a German airborne before it even got off the ground. Yet, the often amusing and sometimes visceral story bypasses the standard biographical design, instead focusing on the heartwarming theme of 'local boy done good' to secure audience allegiance.

More remarkable is the fact that the show's narrative meticulously examines the mindset of the era, suggesting that it was perceived to be more favorable to die during combat than it was to fight another day. The central character's hunger for survival is distinguished by a 'life wish" whereby returning home wasn't just an option, it was instinctively mandatory.

Peterson gives a euphoric performance -- and not just as Bishop; more than half a dozen characters take shape in his capable hands, with Gray at the piano keys to provide intermittent singalongs. Yet, it's only when the reminiscing duo softly state that "Somehow it didn't seem like war at all" does the impact of combat on a battle-weary survivor begin to fully reverberate throughout the venue.

Director Ted Dykstra is worthy of a theatrical medal of honor for this triumphant staging. His accomplishments allow scenes to bloom organically amid Camellia Koo's composite set, which is accented by a single chair, two model airplanes, and an assortment of trunks.

"War is no place for deep emotion," affirms a subtly shaken Billy Bishop as the story inches toward conclusion. A pearl of wisdom from the front line doesn't come any more polished than this.


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