RJ Peters (left) stars in the title role in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s Billy Bishop Goes to War, with Gabriel MacDonald in a musical supporting role. The show runs now through Nov. 4 at the Roxy Theatre. Photo by Jo-Ann Richards

REVIEW: Blue Bridge’s Billy Bishop stunningly brilliant

Monday reviewer Sheila Martindale lauds RJ Peters’ portrayal of the First World War airman

Sheila Martindale

Monday Magazine contributor

Lead actor RJ Peters is superb in Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, perhaps the most challenging he has faced in his career.

He puts in a huge amount of energy – one wonders how he can remember everything in the telling of the story. Peters not only plays the title role, he portrays around 17 different characters, including all his instructors, girls, mentors and even royalty.

There is also the matter of demonstrating how he flies those cramped fighter planes, machine gun in hand, vanquishing the enemy, some in very close calls. If he is not exhausted doing all this, his audience is positively perspiring and drooping at the end!

Yes, I know that Eric Peterson did all of that when this show was first remounted in 1998, but since he was one of the playwrights, I suppose he had a bit of a prior handle on the dialogue and actions.

Peters’ right-hand man Gabriel MacDonald plays the music, both for all the songs and for the dramatic background. He also sings and adds bits to the dialogue, providing a very solid and reliable tone to the play.

Rebekah Johnson’s lighting and Guy Segal’s projection design play no small parts here, adding to the general high drama. Not to forget Jacqueline Gilchrist’s First World War costuming and Hans Safekow’s interesting and functional set.

The story, of course, is quite fascinating. A young Canadian or ‘Colonial’ with not much to recommend him at first, Bishop joins up to fight for England. After the horrible mud and difficulties of battle on the ground, he finds flying and comes to love the feeling of freedom in the air. Flight was, of course, in its infancy in those days of the early 20th century.

With his ‘devil may care’ attitude, Bishop finds himself well suited to this kind of warfare, and quickly becomes a legend given the number of German planes he manages to shoot down. He collects medals along the way before he is finally retired, and lives to raise a family then become a flight trainer in the next war.

The play initially garnered some criticism from anti-war groups who claimed it promoted a pro-war attitude. But I think they missed the point.

The fact is this particular production, directed by Jacob Richmond, is stunningly brilliant. It runs at the Roxy Theatre on Quadra now through Nov. 4 and should be on everyone’s must-see list.

Go to bluebridgetheatre.ca or call 250-382-3370 for tickets.

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