“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.’
“There is an outstanding performance from Hazel Maycock, whose portrayal of Betty is worth the price of admission alone”
Dementia is one of the biggest health and social challenges we currently face. Most people know someone affected by this cruel illness and whilst in general mental health is something increasingly spoken about, dementia still has an element of public stigma about it. It is encouraging to see more theatres presenting plays with dementia at the core of the story and one such production from Kali Theatre certainly forces the audience to think deeply about their attitude to the topic.
Sundowning is an eighty minute play by Nessah Muthy which introduces us to Betty, a dementia sufferer, her daughter Teresa and the troubled Alyssa. The title refers to a state of increased agitation, confusion, disorientation and anxiety that typically occurs in the late afternoon or evening in some individuals affected with dementia.
The play opens with Betty on a bed in a care home displaying realistic signs of vagueness. Either side of the room are two doors through which Teresa and Alyssa come and go as each scene moves. To the rear of the stage is a window through which we see changes in the light and darkness of the days as time progresses.
The story appears to be well researched and though not all autobiographical some parts are from Muthy’s own family experience with the disease. We see how difficult it is for all affected and it gives us a glimpse into the realities of caring for someone afflicted by it.
There is an outstanding performance from Hazel Maycock, whose portrayal of Betty is worth the price of admission alone. She certainly conveys to the audience a very realistic version of a dementia sufferer with an unnerving amount of confusion yet remembering well her beloved late husband Jimmy. Whilst her marriage was an important part of her life that she hasn’t forgotten, arguably it does form a little too much of the play. Aasiya Shah makes Alyssa a believable character whose life has gone off the rails but has a deep down love for her Nan and wants to take her from the care home for one last holiday. The third cast member Nadia Nadif as Teresa has less of a character to get to grips with, though it is clear she finds Alyssa’s sudden appearance an annoyance as she struggles to do what she think is best for her mum.
The sound design (Dinah Mullen) enhances the production. The mix of white noise and excerpts of 60s pop songs helps to give an idea of how Betty’s brain is working. The lighting design (Pablo Fernandez Baz) works well and particularly so in the last scene.
Whilst some parts of the performance did seem to drag a little on occasions, director Helena Bell generally makes the performance flow well. Overall, whilst Sundowning is not a fun night out at the theatre, congratulations should be given to all involved in this thought provoking production which can only raise the awareness and better understanding of dementia.