Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thousand Island's Playhouse Aces 'Billy Bishop Goes to War'

The Firehall Theatre at The Thousand Islands Playhouse is an alternative playing space -- a black box theatre that can accommodate almost any artistic vision for a production. So how do you best arrange the space for one of Canada's best-known war heros?

You make the place feel like the Royal Canadian Legion, that's how. You make sure that your patrons can sit at a table with the refreshment of their choice while they enjoy the show. You make people comfortable - and above all else you give them a great show.

"Billy Bishop Goes to War"  is that show. This production has two actors present on stage, but is for all purposes, a one-man show. Don't let that dissuade you. Let it convince you to attend. This one man is the extravagant, story-telling, larger-than-life Uncle of your childhood. You know the one. The one who kept the family entranced with stories about his life. This man is Billy Bishop - top WWI ace of the British Empire. And his stories are really good - and his songs are even better. Little war ditties that are hauntingly familiar -  helping to flesh out the story and the flavour of an era gone-by. Helping to set the stage for a more gallant time, a  personal war, a more involved life.

Jacob James, the actor who brings Bishop to life on stage, is a familiar face. He is a Kingston native with a passion for theatre that knows no bounds. James, in his late twenties, has extensive credits; a degree from National Theatre School, training at the Stratford Shakespeare conservatory and at Second City, and has performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for over five years. He is a seasoned veteran of the stage and one of the most personable men you could meet. This personality is brought to bear in his current role of Billy Bishop.

James plays Bishop with flair and panache. He is a raconteur, a charmer, a comic, and a singer of war songs. He holds the audience spellbound for two hours, giving voice to Bishop and several other characters along the way. James is a fabulous character actor who has no problem convincing us that he is Billy Bishop, Lady St.Helier, St.Helier's butler, British hero Albert Ball, and  a host of others involved in Bishop's life. This play is truly a vehicle for him, as he shows his strengths and ability to single-handedly carry a show. James can sing, too. He has a very nice voice, possibly an inheritance from his father, entertainer Roger James.

Sandy Thorburn, director, musical director, pianist and narrator has done a brilliant job with this production. I am told that the role of the pianist/narrator has sometimes been made larger, but his choice is to remain a backdrop to the main character. He stays in the background, adding music or voice as necessary, just like the entertaining soldiers at the Legion - you know the type - the piano players don't get half of the attention that the balladeers get. And so it should be, the director/pianist/narrator supports the show as the piano player supports the singers who tell the story.

Thorburn and set designer Robin Fisher have created a wonderful world upon a sparse set. The stage is a thrust - a catwalk, really - very much like a long wooden dock or an old loading platform. It is adorned with several crates of different shapes and sizes which serve in turn as a barracks, a hospital, Royal Military College, a canoe, an airplane, a drawing room, and more. That is the thing about this production - it recognizes that the audience has an imagination and it allows us to use it. By this device, we can fully flesh out the various and sundry settings of the story, which would be impossible to realize with concrete scene changes. The story is seamless, enchanting and energetic because of the simplicity of the set, the vision of the director and the talent of the actor.

Tying all of this brilliance together is lighting designer Adair Redish. Every nuance of every expression is captured and subtly highlighted by his extraordinary lighting design. We never want to 'notice' lighting - it should always be taken for granted by the audience, and we can focus on the story because of the lighting design for this show. Trying not to bore the lay audience - but the lighting was exceptional.

This show has been launched strongly and it will take little effort to keep it in the air - it is deserving of full houses for every performance, and may very well get them. Do yourself a favour and buy tickets now for the show, which runs at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in the Firehall Theatre, Gananoque, Tuesdays through Saturday evenings and matinees on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until September 3. Everyone should experience theatre like this.

Come on down to the Legion and hear Billy tell his stories.

For details, see the Thousand Islands Playhouse website:

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