Charles Aitken will reprise his role as Younger Billy, alongside Oliver Beamish as Older Billy, in Proud Haddock and Arsalan Sattari Productions transfer of Billy Bishop Goes to War to the Southwark Playhouse, following its successful run at the Jermyn Street Theatre. The production runs from 15 March, with previews from 13 March, until 6 April.

Billy Bishop Goes to War won the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Award in 1981, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1982, and the Governor General’s Award for English Drama in 1982. It is the most produced play in Canadian theatre.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is coming back to London, what can you tell us about it?

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a funny, fascinating, moving, and uplifting biopic for the stage.  It’s one of Canada’s most cherished shows, but, much like the man it’s about, it’s mostly unknown to British audiences. After a successful run at the Jermyn Street theatre last November, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to share Billy’s remarkable story with even more people at the Southwark Playhouse this March and April.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a play with songs that tells the true story of Canada’s first world famous hero. Born at the turn of the 20th century in the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario, the play charts Billy’s extraordinary life from rebellious student in Canada, to reluctant soldier in England, and ultimately, to world renowned flying ace in France during the First World War.

Told directly to the audience by two actors playing Billy at opposite ends of his life, Billy Bishop Goes to War is a gripping account of bravery, comradeship, and enduring love set against the backdrop of war and man’s early attempts to conquer the sky. Billy is a charming rogue, a maverick both on the ground and in the air, and possibly an unreliable narrator.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a zero-to-hero dramedy featuring original music and songs, and audiences will come away from it with heartstrings tugged, brains nourished, and an astonished disbelief that they’d never heard of one of the 20th century’s greatest larger-than-life characters.

You’re reprising your role – tell us about your character?

I play the young version of Billy Bishop and a handful of eccentric characters that he meets on his adventure. Billy’s a drinker, a charmer, and a merry rule breaker. Think Prince Hal before he rejects Falstaff. Brilliant, brave, and fond of treading the fine line between heroism and foolhardiness, Billy was the Han Solo of his day. Allergic to straight lines and traditional rules, Billy navigated his own course on the ground and in the air during the birth of aviation and aerial combat.

The play tells the story of how he went from a failure at school to becoming the most decorated soldier in the British Empire. With 72 confirmed victories in the air, Billy Bishop, or “Bish” as he was known to his mates, was one the world’s most famous flying aces by the end of WW1, second only to Germany’s notorious “Red Baron”. Unlike the Baron von Richthofen however, Billy has been mostly forgotten on this side of Atlantic. Despite being friends with Howard Hughes, sharing the screen with James Cagney in a Warner Brothers movie, and having a major airport in Toronto named after him, Billy Bishop has faded into the margins of history.

Our play hopes to introduce a new generation to this charming, cheeky, high-spirited force of nature who may or may not be one of recent history’s greatest unsung heroes. In Billy Bishop Goes to War, he gets not only gets his rightful time back in the spotlight but also the songs to go with it! Whether or not the audience will entirely believe the tale he tells, however, will be up to each individual to decide!

What did you enjoy most about working on this production?

As a history student at university, I’ve really loved researching Billy. There are conflicting accounts about just how heroic he may or may not have been. His seminal act of bravery, a solo attack on a German aerodrome, for which he was awarded Britain’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross, is the only time that medal has been awarded to a soldier without a corroborating eye witness account. The British government gave it to Billy based on his testimony alone! Some historians think he might have made the whole thing up! Either Billy was an astonishingly brave and fortunate fighter pilot, or he was an outrageously creative and audacious liar.

I love this element of uncertainty and I think the audience will too. I also loved collaborating closely with my cast mate, Oliver Beamish, who plays the older version of my character, Billy Bishop. Not since drama school have I shared a character with another actor. Rather than stepping on one another’s toes, it was and continues to be a fascinating and humbling process—sharing research, ideas, and inspiration with one another. I couldn’t have hoped for a more wonderful dance partner, and to mix metaphors, Oliver raises every aspect of my game as a performer.

It’s quite a tight rope act to tell this epic story in under two hours with just two actors, and yet, I can take the stage with confidence and fill Billy’s rather large shoes, and that is all thanks to Oliver. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a wonderful pianist to boot? You should hear his Billy Joel covers!

How did audiences respond to it at Jermyn Street Theatre?

Audiences at the Jermyn Street Theatre were really wonderful. Because the show is all told directly to the audience you can really feel how involved they are in the story. At times, they laughed so much that I felt the giddy rush of a stand-up comedian. At other times, you could see they were on the edge of their seats marvelling at Billy’s butt-clenching aerial antics. During its most moving moments, the audience’s sniffles were as audible as their occasional spontaneous applause.

It’s a story that seems to have something for all ages. Younger people were excitedly engaged with the action set pieces. The older members of the audience found the play to be a very moving piece about the cost of heroism, celebrity, and surviving a war when so many didn’t.

Watching the older version of Billy reflect on his life and relive his youthful feats of bravery not only illuminates the double-edged sword of astonishing success at a young age, but also provides an insight into the way we make sense of our lives through stories. By telling our life story to others we refine the story we tell ourselves. Sometimes that story can be funny, sometimes it can be moving, and sometimes it can be hard to tell fact from fiction. But ultimately, Billy Bishop Goes to War paints a profound portrait of a remarkable man through humour, song, poetry, and of course, cracking good yarns!

It’s in the light that we explore the darker sides of life. My hope is that through our production, audiences will not just discover a fascinating, fun, mercurial, and forgotten hero from recent history, but will also ponder what it means to be a human at the heart of a heartless war. Ultimately it asks the audience: what is heroism? What is cowardice? What is success? What is failure? What’s true? What’s not? Does distinguishing between the two matter? And ultimately, what’s the best way to live this finite life that we all share?

It will be a bigger space this time round, what opportunities does that give the production?

The Jermyn Street Theatre was a wonderful venue to breathe life into Billy Bishop because it was so intimate. And it came with its own piano! As a play told directly to the audience, an intimate venue really allows the audiences into the experience, into the cockpit of Billy’s mind.

Just as there are twin perspectives, old and young, at all times on any given moment, the show also operates in parallel dimensions: one incredibly intimate and personal, the other epic and as expansive as the sky. Having explored the challenges of playing a space so intimate I could see the eyes of every audience member, I’m now looking forward to seeing how the story expands to fill the larger space at the Southwark. My hope is that the new space will make the show even more exciting and epic, like a rollicking adventure ride. The Southwark is the perfect space for the next step in Billy Bishop’s journey, as it allows us to stretch the horizon of our story without sacrificing the wonderful personal engagement with the audience.

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Billy Bishop Goes to War?

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a hilarious, uplifting, edge-of-your-seat tearjerker that will make you want to get out from behind the safety of your screen and take a flying leap into the great unknown that is life. It’s a story for all ages. The younger ones in the audience will feel like they’re actually in the cockpit of Billy’s fighter plane, defying gravity and dodging bullets in death defying feats of flying.

Members of the audience of an older vintage will enjoy not only discovering a fascinating but sadly forgotten figure from history, but will also experience a moving, insightful, and ultimately uplifting meditation on the universal challenge of growing old and making sense of the dramatic twists and turns that mark a life well-lived.

Ultimately, it’s a cracking good story with great tunes. Like any good yarn, Billy Bishop Goes to War is packed with funny moments, scary moments, upsetting moments, fist-pumping moments, and some moments that may strike some in the audience as just too good be true. But that quality of the unreliable narrator is just one more fascinating element of the complex, charming, frustrating but ultimately brave man that was Billy Bishop. I can’t wait for audiences to fall in love with him like I have!

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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