From bright-eyed to horror-stricken
Globe Apple Theatre’s Billy Bishop Goes to War captures the mood with stellar acting and music
The Remembrance Day weekend marked the start of the Golden Apple Theatre’s second production season and, appropriately enough, the debut performance of Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Billy Bishop Goes to War, which opened at the Artesian on Sunday, Nov. 13, relates the first-person story of Canadian First World War pilot Billy Bishop. It shows how a bright-eyed young man is turned bloodthirsty on his conquest for glory until he realizes the horrors of warfare. The production does a great job of drawing the audience into the perspective of someone caught in the middle of a world war.
The play had only two performers: Ryland Alexander, who played Billy Bishop, and Wayne Gwillim, who played Billy’s piano-playing friend. Ryland was also given the difficult task of playing the various other characters they meet throughout the story.
Lesser actors may have made a mess of transitioning between characters, but Alexander changed between them fluently and faultlessly. He went through the dialogue and actions of the different characters with ease and made scenes with only one actual person seem like there was a different actor cast for each role.
The play broke the fourth wall and had Billy speaking to the audience, which gave the play a very personal and intimate tone, as if you’re in a room with Billy and he’s personally recounting his story just for you.
The actors navigated their way through the play’s mood changes, moving from pretty hilarious moments in the play typically surrounding any one of the comical characters that Billy comes across to deeply solemn scenes. Backing piano music under the dialogue helped to establish the scene’s mood and change it as well. The transitions between these various tones could often be fast, but nonetheless they never seemed rough or awkward.
For the most part, Bishop Goes to War’s music was done quite well. It only used a piano and two-part harmonies, yet still managed to fill the room with sound. The musical composition also paralleled what was happening on stage with happy-sounding, major-key progressions reflecting the world’s mentality going into the war contrasted with rather unsettling lyrics about the tragedies of war.
Not only was the piano used to provide musical accompaniment, but sound effects as well. The only issue with the music of Billy Bishop was that Wayne Gwillim’s voice sometimes failed to match the volume of Ryland Alexander’s.
The play’s two-hour runtime is something of a deterrent. Billy Bishop Goes to War can’t sustain its energy through to the last ten minutes, which seem to drag on. Though there are some necessary parts in the last bit of the play, some of it likely could be omitted for the sake of brevity.
As a whole, the performance was quite well done, running smoothly with very few impediments. If the rest of the Golden Apple Theatre’s season is on par with its production of Billy Bishop Goes to War, audiences can expect a year full of successes.
Billy Bishop Goes to War movie does not distinguish itself from the play
Though Billy Bishop Goes to War found its audience in live theatre, that didn’t stop its creators from translating it to the big screen. The movie features the two original writers and performers of the production, John Gray and Eric Peterson, and is essentially a performance of the stage version that happened to be filmed. It even takes place on a stage in an empty theatre. The characters address a nonexistent crowd, which, frankly, seems a little awkward. Having the characters either speak to each other, directly to the camera, or a combination of the two would have likely been a smarter filmmaking decision to help attain the sense of intimacy that is achieved in the stage production of this script.
The screen adaptation does have the advantage of subjecting the audience to the camera’s point-of-view. One scene depicts characters on a boat on the rough seas, and the camera teeters back and forth to invoke the sensation of seasickness upon the audience. Subtle expressions on the actors’ faces are also easier to pick up on and don’t have to be as exaggerated as they would on the stage, and character changes are aided by different types of shots and changes in camera angles.
The movie’s pacing is much faster than the play’s, with many scenes edited for clarity and brevity. This moves the narrative along quicker and doesn’t ever drag on, but this also eliminates plenty of lines that were quite funny in the play. Scenes sometimes changed too quickly, sometimes without so much as a breath between them. Also, some important information pertaining to understanding the story was missing in comparison to the stage production and likely would have been more difficult to follow if one had not previously seen the stage production of Billy Bishop Goes to War.
Backing instruments such as drums and strings were dubbed over top of the traditional solo-piano score, which compliments the pieces well but doesn’t feel as personal as two people with only a piano. The effect of both actors’ age on the film’s music is a mixed bag. The high notes sung in the songs are audibly strained, but this can also be seen as emphasizing the strain the characters suffered during the First World War.
Overall, Billy Bishop Goes to War fares adequately as a movie, with the age of the original cast adding agreeably to the performance, but not enough was changed from the theatrical production to make it seem like a movie. Still, having the on-screen action depicted on a stage makes one feel like that’s where the production truly belongs.