Monthly Archives: November 2018

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR Jermyn, SW1

THE SAVAGE BEAUTY OF THE FIRST AIR WAR

  

Britain did not stand alone  in WW1.    As our hero sings in John MacLachlan Gray’s  1982 play:

“South Africa and Canada and Australia to boot /   Are saying ‘Mother, here we are!  Now  tell us who to shoot?”

    This  1982 Canadian play is a fascinating sidelight in this centenary week,  a biography of one star pilot in that war.  It not only takes us above the terrible trenches and into the skies but reminds us of that  “Colonial”contribution.  Those Anglophone lands lost many sons but in the process  gained a new confidence in their future independence.  It also reminds us that WW1 began, incredibly,  with cavalry charges – Billy came over in a boat full of army horses – but ended with the newest of technology.   War moved aloft, in the canvas and prop planes of the Royal Flying Corps.   Without parachutes,  youthful pilots  flew them with an average 11-day survival , and in one model  were sent out – for reasons of weight -with only bombs, no guns.

 

 

. Among them was our hero. Billy Bishop, a callow, rebellious young Canadian who failed his military academy finals by cheating and arrived, seasick and shocked by a voyage through torpedo attacks, as a cavalry officer.    Weary of the mud and boredom in camp he looked up to see a plane, and discovered that he might manoeuvre himself into a job as an Observer. Despite daft laddish injuries,   a  weak heart and being disgraced in training he came good.  He trained as a pilot, patronised by Lady St Helier (who had Canadian connections). He   won the  MC and VC and to his horror was paraded socially before political grandees as a kind of human trophy.   He was  one of the highest scoring fighter pilots and so valuable as a symbol  that he was pulled off duties before the Armistice and sent home  because  Canadian morale needed encouraging and,  unaccountably to the sombre English mind,  that young nation preferred its heroes to survive.

 

It is the well-worn wartime  tale of impossibly young men  thrown into the desperate exhilaration of war, losing friends daily, impassioned against “the Hun”,but sometimes suddenly softening  at the burning realities of death.   But it is also a universal portrait of a bad-boy coming good, finding a metier,  hurling himself at his talent almost too hard, in and out of drink and depression: almost a rock star story. 

 

  Most of the time, in Daisy Blower’s painstakingly detailed set (including a piano for the many atmospheric songs),  two men are on stage:Charles Aitken as young Billy, lean and manic, half annoying and half irresistible, shares the narration with Oliver Beamish as his older self , the Air Marshal of the 1950s . Neatly and deftly each becomes other characters:   Beamish often authority figures, Aitken at one point almost worryingly convincing as a French bar chanteuse .  They meld beautifully, each a part of the other, singing together sometimes.

       There is for my taste slightly more evocation of dogfights and of  Billy’s remarkable solo raid on a German airfield.  But it is brilliantly done, probably necessary. Gray’s writing is often startlingly poetic;   the songs – some from the period –  vibrate with atmosphere.  Early on, the sense of a  lonely Canadian’s longing for his own peaceful skies is poignantly beautiful.

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

to 24 nov

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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ear for eye ROYAL COURT, SW1

GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL  ADAIR LISTENS, AS WE SHOULD

 

A glass box filled with smoke encapsulates the Royal Court stage. Shadowy figures patrol its perimeter, sometimes staring out at the audience, trapped. The play begins as the box is lifted, uncaging fifteen people, all of them black.  Over eleven scenes they take it in turns to address one another. 

 

     Sometimes they speak to specific people, they could be their parents, their friends, sometimes directly to the entire group. Each takes his or her turn speaking, but far more time is spent listening. Sitting on wooden chairs, sometimes they are assembled like a support group, other times angrier, arranged around the speaker as in  a boxing ring or slumped, as if a meeting of outraged trade unionists. The conversations are snapshots: of anger, of frustration, of exasperation. They are conversations about being black – witnessing and being subjected to police brutality, how to act and how to carry yourself without fear of unjust punishment, of peaceful protest and of the suggestion of violent protest in a desperate attempt to bring positive change. 

 

 

Written by debbie tucker green  [ the lower-case titles are her wish]   this is a searing, breathtaking work where listening is a recurring theme. In part 1, the snapshots of stories move along frantically, at first hard to catch on to. But  with the repetition – with the scenes ticking between African American and Black British voices, the anger the issues start to match, echo and twist into the same tornado – police brutality, protest, working to be perceived as ‘acceptable’. As this tornado picks up pace and whistles around the stage, we reach part 2. There is little left in its wake. Gone are our familiar fifteen faces, now we just have two. A young black woman (Lashana Lynch) and a middle aged white man (Demetri Goritsas). The man is incapable of listening:   the two are discussing a heinous crime – the man disagrees, twists and turns, interrupts, cites ‘ the research’, repeatedly references his own intelligence, mansplains, asserts things verging on hysteria.  He does not listen or , when challenged, accept that he is not listening. As the nameless white man keeps turning the tables, pontificating, the stage slowly rotates clockwise, screwing around and around, along with our own stomach. This is real, this stuff really happens. This is still a world of ‘I’m not racist, but…’ and tucker green is here masterfully showing us one of the most astonishing accounts of the modern black experience that I have ever seen. 

 

With part 2 leaving us on the ropes, part 3 is the knockout blow. We see a pre-recorded film, dozens of white American voices: children, elderly couples, families all sitting sadly and  uncomfortably whilst they read Jim Crow laws, the laws that enforced racial segregation in the USA, such as ‘It shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes or checkers.’ This is followed by British voices reading some of the obscene British Slave Codes for Jamaica. 

 

This is a merciless and frankly, traumatic piece of work, well deserved by our angry, divided times. As a work of drama, the lack of narrative sometimes causes it to feel like scenes wear on for too long after the emotional waves come crashing over the rocks. But it is  a work of art, a sincere and important message more important to be seen for what it is, rather than picked apart in a review.  

  My words are less important, go and listen to debbie tucker green’s.

 

Box Office: 020 7565 5000 to  24th November

RATING   

Michael Adair on reflection feels it inappropriate to offer star (or mouse) ratings  from 0-5  here, and theatrecat feels that this is as valid a judgement as ratings themselves:  we like you to read the words rather than count the stars…

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