“What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing”
Directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play comes with the baggage of taking on an all-time classic, but it does so with empathy and style.
Tom Wingfield (Michael Abubakar) is ‘starting to boil inside’. He feels stifled living in a small St. Louis apartment with his loving but controlling mother Amanda (Lesley Ewen) and his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh), who suffers from both crippling shyness and the after-effects of childhood illness. Tom works joylessly in a shoe warehouse to support the three of them while dreaming of adventure and travelling further afield – like his father, who abandoned the family 15 years previously. Amanda persuades Tom to invite a friend to dinner in the hope that this ‘gentleman caller’ will fall in love with her fragile daughter and save her from poverty, solitude and her dreamy remoteness.
The first half unfolds slowly, allowing plenty of time to fill in the characters of the three family members. There are flashes of humour amid an overwhelming sense of sadness and frustration. The second half introduces Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher), the gentleman caller upon whom so much expectation rests, and the intensity goes up several gears. As the plot develops, so too do the performances. Subtle – and less subtle – transformations ensue.
The moments in which Jim and Laura begin to reveal their true selves are utterly heartrending and exquisitely judged. My only criticism is that part of this key scene, with the pair sat on the floor, was difficult to see from the section of the theatre in which I was sitting. That said, it would be impossible to make such an intimate exchange equally visible from every angle. And anyway, the acting was so assured that their conversation was compelling even when I couldn’t see their faces. The devastating vulnerability on display takes you aback.
The set – often dim and shadowy, in keeping with the memories of the narrator – brilliantly frames the action. Beyond the claustrophobic interior of the apartment, there’s the moonlit fire escape with views of the dancehall along the street and the promise of greater freedoms beyond. With these simple elements a whole world is evoked.
Wisely, this production doesn’t attempt to reinvent Williams’ work. With the sparkling dialogue and perfect pacing of the source material, it could hardly be improved upon. What the show does instead is to tease out the delicate nuances of each character and the generous humanity of the writing, exploring the various shades of the emotional truths implicit in every line. The result is deeply affecting.
“Aitken and Beamish do their very best to bring the story to life
In 2019, over a century after the Great War ended, is there anything left to say about it, you might ask. And I would reply, a fair bit actually – the Irish involvement is still pretty under-told, as is the Indian, African, and Australian. How about the Armenian genocide snuck right in the middle of it all? Don’t hear much about that. And, you know what, now that I think about it, I don’t know much about the Canadian troops either. And unfortunately, after two hours of John Gray’s ‘Billy Bishop Goes to War’ I still don’t. In fact, the title could easily double as synopsis: Canadian Billy Bishop, a fairly average young man, goes to fight for his King, his motherland, his “home away from home”. And there he learns that war is bad, that taking part in a war can sometimes feel good, and that you never forget how good and bad it all was.
But we know that’s how it’s going to go from the very start, as old-man Billy Bishop (Oliver Beamish) enters with a lurching gait in to his bunker-style man-cave, half-bottles of whiskey, mounted antlers and various WWI paraphernalia all scattered about. He is soon followed by his younger, uniformed self (Charles Aitken) to tell the tale. The whole play sits in that first tableau, and if you’re waiting for a twist in the plot, it’s not coming.
Predictability aside, Beamish and Aitken both make a good go of it. Beamish’s Canadian accent is a little shaky at times, but he more than makes up for it with his other Blackadder-esque British military characters. Aitken’s accent is more consistent but sometimes takes precedent over his delivery. Similarly, he shines in the more comical role of elderly socialite Lady St Helier. Neither man is afraid to take up space, or to throw their physicality behind a variety of parts, each playing at least five or six different characters.
The whole play takes place in Bishop’s hidey-hole, giving a sense of playing even as he sits in a cockpit, shooting at German planes and recounting pilots plummeting to their deaths. In this way, the set (Daisy Blower) supports the music (John Gray) in swiftly backing away from any emotional weightiness – any time Bishop experiences loss or trauma, there’s a song to make it nice and catchy. Wake to find two sleeping corpses in your trench? Let’s sing about it! Incidentally, both actors sing pleasantly enough, and Beamish accompanies nicely on piano.
Director Jimmy Walters has done well with the tools he was given. It’s not ground-breaking, but I don’t see how you could make it so. There are a couple of laughs, a couple of nice songs, and Aitken and Beamish do their very best to bring the story to life. Unfortunately, a century after Billy Bishop went to war, we require more than an old boys’ club patting each other on the back, saying, with only a smidgeon of solemnity, ‘It really was a great war.’