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Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Southwark Playhouse

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Billy Bishop Goes to War

Southwark Playhouse

Reviewed – 15th March 2019



“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.’


Reviewed by Miriam Sallon

Photography by  Nick Rutter


Billy Bishop Goes to War

Southwark Playhouse until 6th April


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
The Rink | ★★★★ | May 2018
Why is the Sky Blue? | ★★★★★ | May 2018
Wasted | ★★★ | September 2018
The Sweet Science of Bruising | ★★★★ | October 2018
The Trench | ★★★ | October 2018
Seussical The Musical | ★★★★ | November 2018
The Funeral Director | ★★★★★ | November 2018
The Night Before Christmas | ★★★ | November 2018
Aspects of Love | ★★★★ | January 2019
All In A Row | ★★ | February 2019


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The Dog Beneath the Skin – 3 Stars


The Dog Beneath the Skin

Jermyn Street Theatre

Reviewed – 9th March 2018


“bubbling amusement that frequently fizzes into outright laughter”


After stunning snow, followed by Spring sunshine, London today resumed normal services and only ceased drizzling to tip it down at regular intervals! This meant arriving at the theatre with squelching wellies and dripping hat, and In need of cheering up!

This was the first time I’ve seen an actual ‘stage’ inside the Jermyn Street Theatre. The studio accommodated it well and it split the space interestingly. The set (designed by Rebecca Brower) gave little away about the continental escapade to come, as we waited for the lights to dim, it felt like we were assembled in a country church hall.

The story opens in a sleepy English village with a fairy tale style challenge and quest, which we embark on with our hero (played by Pete Ashmore) and his new companion (played by Cressida Bonas), a whisky drinking, card playing dog …

The journey that follows takes us through countries that do not exist, but which mirror Europe in the 1930s, with its monarchies and corruption and growing unrest. It is a madcap, fast paced trip to say the least!

The thought provoking satire of society and politics between the wars is a constant bubbling amusement that frequently fizzes into outright laughter. The story, although it twists and turns all sorts of corners, remains a basic chase. The script (by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood) is more poetry than prose and changes pace throughout. The remaining cast (Edmund Digby Jones, Eva Feiler, Rujenne Green, James Marlowe, Suzann McLean and Adam Sopp) has multiple roles to play, each with a lot of lines to deliver, which they do beautifully, in song, in rhythm and with gusto.

They shift both scene and actual scenery fluidly, as props and backdrop alteration are woven cleverly into the action. The ever changing lighting (by Catherine Webb) sets the tone, pace, and atmosphere for each scene, and the quick-changing cast are masters at flitting in and out of character.

A lot is packed into this production. The tale gallops across countries, in and out of hotels, brothels, hospital and prison. It travels by train and boat, meets villains and comrades, and steers our hero towards home. The story offers echoes of 21st Century political and social division: Of derision of ‘experts’. Of countries divided. Of hope for a fairer future.

The show is very good; the action doesn’t lull, I laughed aloud, the cast is engaging and my fellow audience members were grinning throughout. And despite the familiarity of ‘the hero seeking the almost impossible task to win fair maiden’, there are many moments of unexpected sidetracking that are novel and entertaining.



Reviewed by Joanna Hinson

Photography by Sam Taylor


The Dog Beneath the Skin

Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March



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