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—Zachary Gray and Ryan Beil in Billy Bishop Goes To War. Photo by Tim Matheson.

by John Gray with Eric Peterson
Arts Club Theatre Company
Granville Island Stage
Mar. 25-April 17

Billy Bishop Goes to War, the pocket musical written and first performed in 1978 by John Gray with Eric Peterson, who played Bishop and all the other roles while Gray played piano and sang along with Peterson, remains one of the all-time greatest works of the Canadian theatre.  It’s smart, funny and intensely theatrical. 

The character of Bishop is endearing and complicated; the play’s treatment of war, particularly the combination of horror and adrenalin rush it presents to young males, is intelligent.  And as a theatrical examination of the Canadian colonial mentality during the time when Canada supposedly “came of age,” the play remains unequalled.  The music is superb in a wide variety of styles and the lyrics are consistently clever.  A couple of the ballads, “In the Sky” and “Friends Ain’t Supposed to Die,” are extremely moving.  The play’s rich theatricality, drawn from a combination of the 18 or so roles played by a single actor and the sophisticated use of simple props and set pieces to evoke the battlefields and dogfights of World War One, challenges actors and directors and delights audiences.  The original production rightly made Eric Peterson a Canadian star, and its subsequent remounts, including a 1998 national tour and a current production at Toronto’s Soulpepper updated to account for Gray and Peterson being twenty years and then thirty years older, have consistently sold out to rave reviews.

In 2008, a new production of the play was staged in UBC’s Telus Studio Theatre by UBC alumni (of whom Gray is one—and even Peterson spent a year studying theatre there in the early ‘70s): Sarah Rodgers directed, with Ryan Beil playing Peterson’s role and Gray’s son Zachary assuming the part of the piano player and adding some guitar accompaniment.  Alum Kevin McAllister designed the set.  UBC students Ian Schimpf and Basha Ladovsky designed the lighting and costumes respectively.  Choreographer Karin Konoval was the only non-UBC principal.  The show was brilliant.  I couldn’t review it at the time because of my employment in the UBC Department of Theatre and Film, which produced it.

Transposed from the black box Telus to the Arts Club’s Granville Island proscenium stage, this is essentially that production, with Itai Erdal credited as lighting designer.  And though it doesn’t sit quite as comfortably on this stage as it did on the Telus, the show has lost none of its shine. 

Beil has been showing his remarkable comic chops for a couple of years now at Bard on the Beach and he uses them to great effect as Bishop.  Gray has written the character as a naive, mischievous kid whose baptism in blood turns him into a cynical killer, but without a total loss of the naivety, mischief or youthfulness.  Beil nails every aspect of Bishop, and though he still has a ways to go to match Peterson’s  astonishing ability to evoke multiple characters with the slightest change of accent or body language, he attacks the numerous other characters with panache.  Looking even younger than he is, Beil drives home one of the play’s most poignant lyrics:

                  I can’t believe how young we were back then.
                  One thing’s for sure, we’ll never be that young again.
                  We were daring young men with hearts of gold
                  And most of us never got old.

Sarah Rodgers has talked about this production as being “Billy Bishop, the next generation” and Zach Gray makes that literal.  He’s the same age as Beil (mid-twenties), and as half of the indie-rock band The Zolas he adds rock-star glamour to the show.  He has an interesting voice and moves easily between piano, acoustic and electric guitars, using the latter very effectively for sound effects in the battle scenes.  Beil and Gray have been friends since childhood and it shows in their chemistry.

McAllister’s design is dominated by a giant warped propeller  hung in front of the back curtain.  The stage is otherwise bare except for the piano, some boxes from which Beil pulls various props and costumes, and a tall ladder.  Rodgers employs the design spectacularly in a couple of places, having Bishop narrate one of his flights from atop the ladder in front of the propeller and another from a plywood plane put together by Beil and Gray from bits and pieces of wood on the stage.  It’s a wonderful theatrical trick and a clever Canadian theatrical citation, quoting the 1970s dramaturgical style of Theatre Passe Muraille.  Gray and Peterson were touring with that company when they devised Billy Bishop Goes to War.

This is must-see Canadian theatre, a thrilling production of a great play.

Jerry Wasserman