Review: 'Billy Bishop Goes to War' at Soulpepper

Joseph Szekeres

I had no idea what to expect from the performances of Messrs. Peterson and Gray by the end of BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR as I regretfully admit I had never seen it before.  The immediate and most appropriate standing ovation was a clear indication of the heartfelt impact it had on the audience. Mr. Peterson (known for Canadian televised shows STREET LEGAL, CORNER GAS and THIS IS WONDERLAND) has played this iconic role off and on for nearly forty years.  Thank goodness, we have been given another opportunity by Soulpepper to witness a passionate portrayal of this important, pugnacious Canadian hero from Owen Sound as we continue our country’s 150th celebration of Confederation.

What made this evening even more memorable was the arrival of some World War Two veterans who came to see the performance. When the crowd realized who was in attendance, many were moved to tears (myself included) and applauded affectionately these brave men and women. While appearing moved himself, founding Artistic Soulpepper Director Albert Schultz warmly welcomed these special guests.

As we enter the Baillie Theatre, we become immediately aware of the reverent solemnity that we have entered a moment in our Canadian history to which we must pay careful attention.  Dust covered sheets and drapes become ghostly reminders as they cover important prop and set pieces from the past.  The soundscape of music and songs from the early twentieth century effectively transports us away from the onslaught of our mobile phones and Ipads. Dimmed spotlights are anticipatory reminders that something magical will occur shortly.

Clad in a red bathrobe, slippers and blue pajamas, Mr. Peterson rivets and captivates the audience with his extraordinary story telling of events that transpired during World War One through music and song. Mr. Peterson is a master of the craft of acting as he becomes Billy Bishop.  He might simply place a cap on his head or take a model of a World War One airplane and begin to tell us of events narrated with extreme grace, confidence and poise either in perfect stillness or nuanced movement.  It is clearly obvious Messrs. Peterson and Gray hold a great deal of respect for each other as the musical montages and moments underscore the amusement, poignancy, sadness, tragedy and seriousness of what many thought would have been the war to end all wars.

In the Program Notes Mr. Gray speaks about the survival of BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR as a piece of theatre which, for him, has become a continual source of wonder.  We need to continue to show the world today that, yes, we are survivors in the twenty first century who must take pride in showcasing and remembering who we are and what we stand for as Canadians.

BILLY BISHOP GOES TO WAR continues at Soulpepper at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in Toronto’s Historical Distillery District until Saturday August 5, 2017.  Visit for more information.  Photo of Eric Peterson and John MacLachlan Gray by Cylla von Tiedemann.