Billy Bishop Goes to War

Fascinating Story presented by Amazing Actor

Two Canadian greats rolled into one – Kyle Blair, one of Canada’s best musical theatre actors portraying Billy Bishop, one of Canada’s greatest war heroes. Now on stage at the McManus Theatre (downstairs at London’s Grand Theatre) Billy Bishop Goes to War is an excellent evening of entertainment produced by A Missing Link Theatre Company.

This show is a must-see for two kinds of people. Anyone interested in Canadian history, particularly war stories, will appreciate the Billy Bishop story. And anyone who enjoys theatre will be in awe of Blair’s performance. Not only does he give us a fascinating portrayal of Billy Bishop, he also plays 17 other characters, each one distinct and perfect.

I am a fan of both Canadiana and Kyle Blair – as such I knew it would be a great evening.Billy Bishop

Billy Bishop Goes to War was the brain-child of John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson (Oscar of TV’s Corner Gas fame). They turned the story of World War I flying ace William Avery Bishop into a drama/comedy/musical back in the late 1970s. I think I may even have seen the two of them in the show back then. I enjoyed them reprising the roles on the CBC-TV movie in recent years. The show has 2 iterations: first it toured the country with Peterson and Gray, depicting Bishop as a young man. Then as Peterson and Gray aged, they come up with a second version showing Bishop as an older man re-telling his war stories.

Credit goes to director Rick Kish for recruiting Blair for this role. Blair, known for his versatility in tackling a myriad of different roles at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, was most recently lauded for his portrayal of Phil in St. Jacobs Country Playhouse’s White Christmas. I have seen Blair in at least a dozen performances and he has never disappointed. This one is the best yet for showing his versatility. He plays 18 parts, male & female, young & old, comedic and dramatic, all with various accents,. We laugh one minute, the next we are terrified for him. We are on the edge of our seats as he tells us (with the use of toy airplane) about his dog-fights in the sky. And he sings beautifully.

Blair shares the stage with piano player Dean Harrison. As well as being accompanist, Harrison supplies sound effects and takes on some speaking roles, working well with Blair.

The story commences with Bishop’s less than stellar academic performance at Kingston’s Royal Military College. He signs up for World War I to avoid expulsion from college. He joins the cavalry because he knows how to ride a horse and shoot. But the horrors of the alternating mud and dust force him to rethink – he sees airplanes overhead, and decides flying would be cleaner. The story of how he gets in the flying corps is funny. We are also treated to the interesting letters he writes home to his girlfriend Margaret. Bishop seems to possess better than 20-20 vision – it’s his shooting skills and ability to hit a moving target that make him so adept at destroying 72 German planes. The show concludes with Bishop becoming a flight trainer in World War II, proud of his son and daughter who are both with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Among the best scenes are Blair in various roles such as the war office recruiter, Bishop’s benefactor Lady St. Helier, Hélène the French songstress sporting a feather boa and Blair as Bishop describing his solo missions.

The cozy McManus Theatre is a good venue, where you can appreciate Kyle Blair up close. The set is well done: I was fascinated by the helmet lamps. The supporting visions on the screen were good, and the lighting was very effective.

Some historians and scholars have attempted to discredit Billy Bishop, saying he lied or exaggerated about the number of enemy planes he shot down. Typical Canadians, we don’t like having heroes, and when we do, we downplay or discredit them. Don’t think about that — even if Bishop embellished his work, he was still a war hero, having inspired others and having survived where so many didn’t. See this emotionally involving production: it’s a great story, told in a remarkable production with superior acting.

Billy Bishop goes to War continues at the McManus Theatre, London until March 8th. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.

Billy Bishop Goes to War
Written and composed by John MacLachlan Gray
In collaboration with Eric Peterson
Directed by Rick Kish
Performed by Kyle Blair as Billy Bishop and 17 others
With Dean Harrison as the Piano Player
A Missing Link Theatre Company
McManus Studio Theatre, lower level at the Grand Theatre, London
Feb 25 to March 8, 2014
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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