Billy Bishop Goes to War

Canada’s Top Flying Ace Brought to Life

Reviewed by Vicki Stokes

A top-notch performance of Billy Bishop Goes to War is being staged at St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre. Created by Canadian writer-composer-performer John Gray with Canadian actor Eric Peterson (Street Legal, Corner Gas), it has been performed internationally and is a recipient of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. On this intimate stage in St. Jacobs, magic happens as Billy Bishop is brought to life by seasoned actor Jacob James.

Normally, Drayton Entertainment’s Artistic Director Alex Mustakas would be present to open the show, but on this day, he was at Rideau Hall receiving the Meritorious Service Medal for his lifelong commitment to making the performing arts accessible and affordable in Ontario. Congratulations and well-deserved!

William Avery Bishop, commonly known as Billy, was not only a Canadian hero but a celebrity, inspiring documentaries, a movie, and a musical, while two airports in Ontario bear his name. His story unfolds on the stage with comedy, drama, and sensitivity, drawn from memories and letters to his dear Margaret. Billy interacts with superiors, peers, and even two women, including the influential Lady St. Hillier. Simple music and lyrics are used to evoke the complexities of war.

Billy Bishop portrays himself as a bit of a failure and a cheat, but with the war on, he is another young body needed for the war effort and off he goes overseas, suffering many injuries and illnesses in the cavalry until he realizes he might be of better use in the Royal Flying Corps. As a mere colonist, he has little chance of making it, but with a little luck and help, he becomes an ace pilot in the primitive, rickety planes of the time and uses his skills as a sure-shot to bring down many an enemy plane. As his tally grows, so does his celebrity. He returns home to Canada as a war hero, though the story doesn’t end there. Appallingly, his talents are needed for a second worldwide war, along with his son and daughter.

Jacob James, well known at Drayton Entertainment and The Stratford Festival, not only breathes life into Billy Bishop, he seamlessly switches into other roles with ease, using various accents and stances to create other characters. James’ energy never waivers in this demanding role, despite being dressed in full uniform and being present on stage almost the entire time.

Jim Hodgkinson is the musical director and pianist. He sets the mood as he produces not only melodies but sound effects from the piano. The two men sing together yet don’t quite interact – there is no banter between them which would have detracted from the intimacy that Billy creates with the audience. Instead, his talents add to an already amazing narrative.

The set is understated and realistic, reminiscent of a dusty corner of an old hanger. The walls have corrugated metal sides, a dartboard is tucked in the corner, there’s a semi-folded British flag, and a model biplane which is used to demonstrate a mission. There are rusty green and white cabinets and metal crates on pallets. These crates aren’t just for effect – they are portable; rearranged, they create Billy’s aircraft. One of them holds his flight gear, enabling James to make a costume change on stage. The lighting is used to invoke various moods, simulating times of calm or battle, dawn or evening.

This is theatre at its best, under the direction of the highly experienced Max Reimer. In the intimate hangar-like setting of the Schoolhouse Theatre, it’s as if Billy Bishop is telling the story directly to a small group of eager listeners. It’s not an audience, but a group of friends gathered around to hear the tales of the great Canadian hero from the man himself.

Billy Bishop Goes to War continues at the St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre until June 12 with several performance options, including full and limited capacity/proof or no proof of vaccine required. Tickets at the box office at Hamilton Family Theatre, Cambridge and St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, by calling 1-855-372-9866 or online at https://www.draytonentertainment.com

Photo: Jacob James as Billy Bishop. Photo by Drayton Entertainment.

Billy Bishop Goes to War
Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with Eric Peterson
Performed by Jacob James with Jim Hodgkinson as The Piano Player
Drayton Entertainment Production
Directed by Max Reimer
St. Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre, St. Jacobs
May 25 to June 12, 2022
Reviewed by Vicki Stokes

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