Arts Club Theatre Company
Billy Bishop Goes to War

by John Gray, with Eric Peterson

Dates and Venue March 25 - April 17 | Granville Island Stage

Reviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

The Arts Club Theatre Company presentation of Billy Bishop Goes to War has a very stark set, consisting of an old wooden piano, a few wooden crates of assorted sizes, one of which has a large British flag draped over it, a tall ladder, an upended chair, and a broomstick. Several of these disparate objects are combined creatively in an elaborate construction project partway through the second act. Guess what they build. Like the play itself, these bare-bones props come together wonderfully to create an extraordinary ‘big picture’ assembled from parts you might never have suspected would fit together so well.

Hung aloft as a backdrop to this collection of odds and ends is an abstract art representation of an what could pass for the front of an airplane constructed with jagged snaggle-toothed metal pieces, and what looks like a propeller in motion around the front end of a plane arranged on a burlap pulled tight in a rectangle and backlit for effect. Not getting the picture yet? Bear with me. You’ll want to see it for yourself.

Zachary Gray does a wonderful job of singing and playing either guitar or piano accompaniment for Ryan Beil who plays Billy Bishop and performs numerous songs and shenanigans as the lead character along with a veritable host of colourful cohorts. Gray adds his considerable musical strengths to this energetic performance. But most of the real energy and intensity comes from the considerable talents of Ryan Beil.

Right from the start Beil held the opening audience rapt as he inhabited his character with an inestimable verve and vigour. Starting with Bishop’s inauspicious beginnings at the Royal Military College, Beil slips energetically into a diversity of roles: playing first Billy Bishop then officers and now Billy again, and then pilots and Billy and a burlesque dancer, and then a priggish British dowager, and always back to Billy again in a seemingly endless array of different characters, all talking with Billy about his war effort.

Not only does Beil handle numerous character changes with deft sensitivity, but he delivers a physical brand of humour with precision and intelligence, handling this irony-laden script with wonderful finesse. For example, his decision to join the air forces includes the marvellous one-liner: “Ever trust your future to a drunken conversation in a bar?”

Beil is a one-man show stopper! If you want a sure way to get as high as you can without ever leaving the ground, you will not want to miss this version of Billy Bishop Goes to War. This play manages to make you laugh while at the same time painting a vivid picture of wartime struggles faced by individuals involved in the war effort. As one song states it so poignantly, “A war’s not satisfied till all the best have died, and the devil take the man who saves his skin.”

The story of Billy Bishop Goes to War is the story of a charismatic rogue who started out as a bit of a foul-up but found his way out of the muddy ground battles of World War I into the air force, and had numerous escapades along the way. It is hard to believe that one man could bring this story to life with the powerful performance of Ryan Beil. It is a story that comes alive like never before in this Arts Club Theatre Company presentation. You won’t want to miss it.

© 2010 Roger Wayne Eberle