In 1978, the patriotic and rueful Billy Bishop Goes to War premiered in Canada to become one of the country's major theatrical exports. After 20 years, it returned for a national tour whose Vancouver Playhouse stay ends Dec. 12.
On Nov. 16, creators John Gray and Eric Peterson returned to Vancouver, the birthplace of the bittersweet and adventure-filled monologue-with music. This time, the slightly revised show (with one new song and a new opening) retells the tale of Canadian World War I ace William Avery Bishop through the lens of middle-age.
Following a Sept. 21-Oct. 31 run at the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, the Vancouver Playhouse (co-producing with CSC and producer Chris Wootten) presented Gray and Peterson's Billy Bishop Goes to War with previews Nov. 16-18 and an opening Nov. 19. A tour produced by Wootten begins March 10-April 3, 1999, at Manitoba Theatre and continues to the Grand Theatre in London, ONT (April 15-May 1, 1999), and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, ONT (May 5-22, 1999).
Peterson recreates the title role (and a dozen other parts) and Gray -- who wrote the folk-and-rag-tinged songs -- plays piano once again.
The play originally ended with an older, wiser Billy giving a recruitment speech to World War II servicemen. The 1998 revised version now begins with that scene, using it as a frame to leap into Billy's reminiscences about the illusion and reality of World War I, the co-called "War to End All Wars." The original production premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978, and played the Vancouver Playhouse in 1982. The play with music has been seen in more than 50 cities in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain. A 1979-80 Broadway season staging folded quickly before resurfacing Off-Broadway in 1980-81.
Designers are Sue LePage (sets and costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lighting). Les Stockley is the standby for Gray and Peterson.
For Vancouver Playhouse ticket information, call (604) 873-3311.
-- By Kenneth Jones