At once impressively polished and pared to essentials, “Billy Bishop Goes to War” will enjoy a lengthy shelf life on homevid and cable as the definitive record of arguably the most widely produced Canadian play of the past half-century. Co-stars and co-authors John Gray and Eric Peterson — who premiered this two-man show in 1978 and have continued to appear sporadically in various revisions and revivals — are showcased in helmer Barbara Willis-Sweete’s graceful preservation of the musical dramedy’s 2010 staging at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theater. That alone could make the pic irresistible to theater buffs throughout the English-speaking world.
Based on the real-life exploits of Billy Bishop, the Canadian-born WWI fighter pilot who became a living legend by shooting down a record 72 enemy planes, this filmization, like the original stage version, has Gray providing piano accompaniment and Peterson portraying 18 or so characters (including, of course, Billy himself) with an absolute minimum of props and costume changes.
Billy narrates his unlikely ascent from his years as a slackerish underachiever at Canada’s Royal Military College (where he was judged “a convicted liar, a cheat and the worst student, the bottom of the barrel”) to his near-miraculous, almost accidental heroics as a pilot in Europe to his eventual recall from active duty by military commanders who didn’t want to risk the bad publicity if “a living colonial figurehead” were killed in action.
Throughout his wartime exploits, Billy divides his time between conversing with other characters — all played by Peterson with little, if any, disguise — and pantomiming misadventures while charged with alternating currents of pride and terror. One of the highlights is Billy’s account of his first kill, during an aerial dogfight Billy apparently won because he was more adrenalized than terrified.
The 2010 Soulpepper Theater production evidently emphasized to an unprecedented degree that “Billy Bishop Goes to War” is a memory play, narrated by a protagonist looking back several decades. In this version, Peterson (who, at 62, is now the same age Bishop was when he died) appears in robe, slippers and pajamas, and behaves in a manner suggesting a fading yet still vital golden-ager — a military hospital patient, perhaps — who can’t suppress stirrings of pride and nostalgia, but whose view of his long-ago heroism is tinged with cynicism and melancholy.
During musical interludes ranging from ironic to impassioned, wistful to rollicking, Peterson’s Billy comments on everything from the need to sustain one’s cool in battle to the ineluctable arbitrariness of life and death.
Some auds may think the pic pushes too hard for contemporary relevance during its final moments, as the camera reveals a heretofore unseen audience for the onstage performance by Peterson and Gray. Other viewers, however, will accept the gesture as appropriate to underscore how “Billy Bishop Goes to War” will, unfortunately, be forever timely.