Saturday, February 9, 2013

Review: (Ottawa) Billy Bishop Goes to War

Chris Ralph (photo credit Andrew Alexander Photography)
BB's Back in Town
by Jim Murchison 

I don't usually refer to previous productions in my reviews but when a play has been so identified with one actor and one creative team as Billy Bishop Goes to War has been with Eric Peterson and John Gray I am willing to alter my guideline. The play was heralded on its opening and subsequent tour and although Gray and Peterson were not unknowns by any means in theatrical circles it put them on another level in the theatrical community. I saw it when it played at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal in its 1979-1980 season.

In many ways I liked this production better, although it has been many years and I am relying on a memory more of my initial reaction to the original production and a feeling that may be affected by layers of years added to it.

Chris Ralph is one of the finest actors working in Ottawa or the country for that matter and always plays with honesty and directness.

Director Teri Loretto-Valentik although not a pilot herself is from a flying family and this helps infuse an understanding into the play. The lobby of the theatre is filled with artistic renderings of WWI planes in action, on loan from the Canadian War Museum. Even the box office and bar staff are in the proper spirit, adorned with military caps. When you get inside the theatre there are working models of various fighter planes suspended from the ceiling. The piano at stage right has a Union Jack strewn over it and pewter mugs awarded by bases to their airmen are placed on the piano should the need to wet one's whistle arise. Other than that there is not much to the set. A chair and some paraphernalia tucked upstage left. This is as it should be.

Chris Ralph is one of the finest actors working in Ottawa or the country for that matter and always plays with honesty and directness. His affable connection with the audience earned him a well deserved standing ovation. This is not to say that there were not a few rough spots that will smooth out during the run, but they never intruded or caused the many characters to break.

I also liked James Caswell more than I liked John Gray in the roll of narrator accompanist. Part of the reason for that is Loretto-Valentik wisely chose to put Caswell in darkness at pivotal points when there was no accompaniment which is seldom, so that we could focus better on Bishop talking about the war or about the death of fellow ace Albert Ball.

Now for the sacrilege and I am definitely in the minority of Canadians in thinking that the play itself is not that good. It appears to me that Gray wrote the piece as a vehicle first and a play second. There are lots of clever songs, but the score itself sometimes is more intrusive than supportive. The real Billy Bishop was used to promote enlistment for WWII and spoke of the satisfaction of seeing your bullets saw off the head of an enemy pilot. He wrote a furious, scathing letter to the brass when ordered to stop fighting after 43 kills, not a mild protestation. His most famous battle was unwitnessed and yet he was still awarded for it, despite suspicion by many that he had made it up. None of the driven egoism that makes a successful killing machine is written into the piece. Gray chose to lightly touch on, gloss over or ignore completely the naked underbelly of Bishop and the horror of war. That, more than the alienation of the colonial feel of it, was likely why it didn't last on Broadway.

The moments Gray wrote where Bishop reflects a bit on death or the effect of war are some of Ralph's finest. However, the ego, fury and bloodlust that Ralph got to perform in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and which made you gasp should have been written into this play.

runtime: approximately 1 hour 45 with one intermission
Billy Bishop runs until February 23rd

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