“I’ve got these tremendous eyes,” Chris Ralph bellowed early in Plosive Productions’ adaptation of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s a line that describes both the titular First World War flying ace and the actor playing him.
The musical, written by John Gray and Eric Peterson and performed at the Gladstone Theatre was a big challenge. The cast was small, consisting only of Ralph as Bishop and James Caswell as the narrator/pianist. As a result, Ralph had to be at the top of his game, playing the role convincingly and with enough gusto to last a full two hours.
For the most part, Ralph passed with flying colours. Using those tremendous eyes, he conveyed the roguish charm, the angered bloodlust and the wearied resignation of a man deeply affected by war. Recounting his character’s military school antics, Ralph’s wide grin and squinting eyes painted a portrait of friendliness. This turned chilling when he described tearing apart a German plane with gunfire, those same features twisted into something more spiteful and savage.
In the play’s more light-hearted moments, Ralph shifted on a dime, his conversational tone of voice instantly switching to a stiff military demeanour in no time flat. His rhythmic recital of a poem about British pilot Albert Ball was compelling, and carried solely on his haunted, sombre tone and his expressions.
While Ralph’s voice expertly sold his lines, it did cause him some trouble. The play features Bishop talking to other characters he meets throughout his life, meaning Ralph had to do many impressions throughout the night. When speaking with an accent, he sometimes faltered, maintaining a tone that was aristocratic but not always convincingly European.
The music was similarly solid throughout with a few weak touches. Caswell made a perfect foil for Ralph, making the sounds of dropping bombs in a story about no man’s land or slapping his knees to make a marching beat.
Caswell’s musical accompaniment, along with the lighting, helped keep Ralph’s performance grounded by ratcheting up the tension in combat scenes. At other times, Caswell would chide or question Ralph, allowing the actor to vamp or build up for big laughs from the audience.
Often, the duets between Caswell and Ralph soared on the two men’s delivery, with Caswell singing his part while Ralph recited his. Occasionally, though, Ralph would sing, and his voice strained. This lent certain songs an immense sense of vulnerability, like one where Bishop sings a wistful song about fallen comrades. In more enthusiastic numbers, though, it was merely distracting.
On the whole, Billy Bishop Goes to War’s performances rocketed it into the stratosphere, though it dipped and dived a bit to get there.
Billy Bishop Goes to War runs from Feb. 8-23 at the Gladstone Theatre.