The Pick: Billy Bishop Goes to War, a film adaptation of a stage classic
For years, the closest thing Canada had to a hit musical was an idiosyncratic piece of theatre called Billy Bishop Goes to War. Since its debut in 1978, John Gray and Eric Peterson’s two-man show about the famed flying ace has been revived widely. Just in time for Remembrance Day, Barbara Willis-Sweete’s winning new film adaptation will be appearing on a pair of Toronto screens this week.
Billy Bishop isn’t your average musical—no flying witches, no singing nuns, no dancing gangs. It makes no overtures to the grand tradition of musical theatre carved out by Broadway and the West End. Far from a kicky extravaganza, Billy Bishop has the intimacy of a musty sitting room, with two former flyboys singing familiar tunes over a glass of scotch and an old piano, remembering their time in the air force. As Billy—and all the other characters save Gray’s nameless troubadour—Peterson doesn’t burst into song unprovoked; his tunes are old war anthems, fragmented, impassioned and as organic to his flashbacks as any of the dialogue. Peterson shows his incredible versatility, adopting and shedding the skin of over a dozen characters while never letting his energy falter.
The show itself dismantles Bishop the hero to give us Bishop the man, first as a boy enamored with the romance of service and finally as a stumbling old man in a saggy bathrobe remembering his glory days. (The air force, it turns out, was a happy accident; Bishop hated the mud of the trenches so much that he enlists as a pilot.) When the play debuted, Bishop was played as a spry 30-something, fresh from the war; the text was recently updated to reflect Peterson and Gray’s ages (they’re both in their 60s). As a tired, reflective old man, Billy takes on a wistful tone, his wartime bravado tinged with regret, grief and misplaced grandeur. The iconic aviator’s cap and goggles are now on a much older face, but the material is all the better for wear.
The details: The Royal Cinema—Nov. 10, 9:30 p.m. $10. 608 College St. W., 416-466-4400, theroyal.to. The Revue Cinema—Nov. 11, 4 p.m.; Nov. 14, 7 p.m., Nov. 15, 9:15 p.m. $10. 400 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-531-9959, revuecinema.ca