“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.’
“this play about war and the devastating impact of chemical warfare and weapons of mass destruction has never been more timely”
This year British theatre has been marking the centenary of the ending of World War One by staging a number of new and revisited productions that pay homage to those involved in the terrible events between 1914 and 1918. One such play, based on true events, is the final production in the Finborough Theatre’s THEGREATWAR100 series. Square Rounds written by Tony Harrison and last performed almost thirty years ago at the National Theatre, is an epic exploration of the devastating effects of technology in the build up to the Great War. The play runs concurrently with the celebration of the venue’s 150th birthday.
The all women play opens with a three screen projection, on an otherwise black and white set, stating ‘I will give my life for peace’ and oddly, against an overall theme of death and destruction, it is this positive statement that runs through the content of the evening.
We are initially taken back to England 1915. With many men away fighting at the Front, six women in a munitions factory decide to play some of the inventors of the then modern technology warfare. We are introduced to Sweeper Mawes and the Munitionettes who in turn represent six very influential people who had both a positive and negative influence during that era.
Amongst those whose story we learn more of is American inventor Hudson Maxim (Amy Marchant) who is concerned for his country and the frightening technological advances employed by America’s new European enemies. But he is also jealous of his brother Sir Hiram Maxim (Letty Thomas) who invented the horrifically destructive Maxim machine gun.
Fritz Haber (Philippa Quinn) was a German Jewish chemist whose invention is still the basis used for producing nitrogen fertilisers of which approximately half of the world’s food is produced using. Sadly he is also considered the ‘father of chemical warfare’ for his pioneering work producing poisonous gases during WW1. We see an interesting interaction between him and his chemist wife Clara Immerwahr (Gracy Goldman) unhappy with her husband’s venture into developing a deadly gas.
Designer Daisy Blower has created a basic, though effective set, that is complimented by thoughtful sound design (Dinah Mullen) and sympathetic lighting (Arnim Friess). Direction from Jimmy Walters keeps the action moving well though on some occasions the rhyming verse was a little too fast to take in the necessary information.
With a mix of tragedy and parody covering themes of race and ethics, this play about war and the devastating impact of chemical warfare and weapons of mass destruction has never been more timely. Sadly some one hundred years later we still hear and see horrific stories of the gassing of innocent people.
Whilst I found the first half slightly difficult to follow because of the detailed historic and chemical references, the second half became much clearer and more enjoyable to watch. An interesting show and for those with a keen interest in World War One history, this is likely to be unmissable.