Plosive Production’s Billy Bishop Goes to War is a one man, one pianist, show about the Canadian World War I flying ace and cultural hero, Billy Bishop. It’s a big piece of Canadian history from a time where Canada was just starting to grow into the independent nation it is today.
Should you see it?
Billy Bishop Goes to War has a pretty explanatory title. It’s about a young misguided kid named Billy Bishop who enlists to serve in the Canadian (colonial) armed forces in World War I and stumbles his way into becoming a hotshot flying ace with one of the highest kill counts around.
It’s based on a true story and is an important part of Canadian history.
Bookended by an older Billy Bishop talking to new recruits on the verge of World War II, Billy Bishop Goes to War starts with Bishop, like countless other kids, enlisting to serve and having no idea the horrors that would be in store for them. The first act is all about Bishop’s early days, recounting his attempts to stay away from the conflict, and leading up to his first kill in a dogfight. Like Bishop himself, it’s largely light in tone to start off, which reflects the attitudes of a country that has never seen hard combat. Keep in mind there was no TV, no Internet, back in those days to broadcast the horrors in full terrifying colour and nobody at the time had any concept of the scale the war would take.
The second act gets a bit darker, kicking off with a couple of numbers showing the realization of the cost of war and all the friends lost in combat. It carries on with Bishop’s story, including a harrowing solo blitz on an airship that was considered a suicide mission, until his time in the war is largely over.
It’s a good story, told by Chris Ralph as Bishop himself. Ralph addresses the audience in the telling, creating his own machine gun and avionic sound effects, and singing some hearty tunes (hopefully you like old-timey folk music). It’s effectively a one person show with James Caswell on piano being the only other person on stage with Ralph. Cazwell occasionally sings along and has the odd line but it’s up to Ralph to carry the show so fortunately you won’t get tired of seeing him on stage as he sings and reenacts stories not only as Bishop but as somewhere in the tell of seventeen other characters, including a sultry female lounge singer.
Plosive Productions pulled in a lot of support for this production from related third parties. Hanging around the simple set, and the Gladstone itself, are beautiful handmade models of WWI planes, on loan from collectors. They’ve also got replica memorabilia decorating the lobby on loan from the Canadian War Museum which is worth checking out while you’re there. Plus, your Billy Bishop ticket will get you $2 off admission to the Canadian War Museum if your history fix isn’t satisfied by the show (or if you’re inspired by the show to learn more).
I said of Pierre Brault’s Blood on The Moon that all Canadian history should be delivered this way, and Billy Bishop falls into the same category. Don’t give us facts in books. Tell us the stories. Bring them to life. Make them entertaining.
But that’s just my opininion and I want to know what you think. Was I totally asleep during the show? Did this inspire you to want to learn more about Bishop or Canadian history? Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments below.
For more information on Billy Bishop, including photos, video, and all the press around town, check out Plosive Production’s Presents Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Photos in this article taken by Production Ottawa Photographer, David Pasho.