Billy Bishop Goes to War – Soulpepper

by Sam Mooney

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop Goes to War – a Soulpepper production – is an example of how amazing  Canadian theatre can be, and how enduring.

I saw it 30 years ago and loved it.  I have to admit that I don’t remember a lot of detail; I just remember really enjoying it.  One impression that stayed with me is that it was a bit like a documentary with music so I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did tonight.

When I first heard that Eric Peterson and John Gray were performing a production of the 30 year old play I wondered how they were going to handle the age issue.  Eric Peterson is a very talented actor but I couldn’t imagine him playing a 20 year old at this stage of his life.  And he doesn’t try to.

He tells the story as an older man reminiscing about his “war”.  He’s in pyjamas for the entire play.  It works.

It’s hard to know where to begin to talk about the show.  It was terrific.  Gray and Peterson were perfect together. As I was walking back to my car I wanted to stop people and tell them to go and see it.

My show partner Sue and I both loved what Sue called the vignettes (good word) – when Peterson played more than one character.  Lady St Hellier was wonderful.  Her poem had the audience in stitches. 

I also loved the way the props were used.  It’s challenging to do a play about a flying ace without a plane on stage.  Peterson handled an ashtray with a plane on top – remember those ashtrays? – like a pro.  And using two footlockers or toolboxes as a plane was brilliant.

The show is billed as a musical so I should mention the music.  John Gray plays the piano and sings, sometimes alone and sometimes with Peterson.  A couple of the songs had a Randy Newman feel to them, bouncy and singable but serious.

This production felt lighter, more relaxed than my memory of the play 30 years ago. 

One of the questions we ask our show partners is “What didn’t you like about the show?”  Tonight there was nothing to not like.  No jarring details, no false notes.

The audience loved it.  Sue and I loved it. There was a heartfelt standing ovation – not a Toronto standing ovation.  A well deserved standing ovation.

Thank you Eric Peterson and John Gray for two really memorable theatre experiences – 30 years apart. 

Photo of Eric Peterson and John Gray by Cylla von Tiedemann

– Billy Bishop Goes to War is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill Street) until August 29th.
– Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8 PM with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM
– Ticket prices range from $36.00 to $68.00 and student tickets are $28.00. Rush tickets are available 15 minutes before the show and are $20.00 – Youth rush (under 21) $5.00
– Tickets can be purchased online or through the box office at 416.866.8666.

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