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L.A. Beat

New West Theatre beautifully performs Billy Bishop goes to war

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Owen Sound born First World War Canadian Flying Ace Billy Bishop would be proud to see his story told by New West Theatre. So would Eric Peterson and John Gray who wrote the Canadian classic “Billy Bishop Goes To War,” which runs until Oct. 6 at the Sterndale Bennett Theatre.Braden Griffiths and Jesse Plessis perform Billy Bishop Goes to War. Photo by Richard Amery

 Actually the multi-talented Braden Griffiths, who stars as Bishop, reminds me of a young Eric Peterson who toured Billy Bishop Goes to war for years before reaching the public eye on Canadian drama Street Legal and most recently Corner Gas.

 And while one would think a one man show could seem overwhelmingly  long— just one guy talking non-stop— it is definitely not the case here. There is something for everyone here — music, dancing, comedy, drama and a lot of different accents and characters. Griffiths masterfully and effortlessly alternates between all of them.

 He’ll be the mischievous rascal Bishop one moment then the wealthy and uptight dowager the next, then switch to sultry French lounge singer Helene, then a petty military functionary the next moment, then back to Bishop. And he’ll barely blink when doing so.

And even though he could project his voice more, pianist Jesse Plessis makes a solid debut with New West Theatre by playing period piano, shooting out the odd one liner and even sings a couple songs solo while complementing Griffiths’ voice on others. My favourite Plessis moment is his portrayal of the King George V presenting medals to Billy Bishop.

 Meanwhile the animated Griffiths romps all over the beautiful set, which realistically portrays a functional military barracks/ study/ Victorian era study. He’ll dance on the table, use a chair while telling a story about fighting the Hun in the air, he’ll take a nap on the side of the stage. He’ll basically entertain everybody. While it is tough to choose a favourite character he portrays, other than Bishop himself, his portrayal of lounge singer Helene, complete with red boa, is priceless.

But he brings out the many facets of Billy Bishop, from the “accident prone” rascal trying to get out of duty, trying to fit in the dowager’s house when she takes him under her wing, dealing with military life and missing his wife to be Margaret, whom he write telling her what is happening.

He also beautifully captures Bishop‘s inner humanity and turmoil as he grows from fresh faced boy eagerly anticipating the First World War action, but still scheming to get out of action to battle scarred veteran who simultaneously wants to go homeand keep fighting. His speech about his last kill, shooting out the bottom of  German “two-seater” and watching the pilot and gunner fall to their death will move you to tears. Other scenes will make you laugh out loud.

  New West does a great job on a Canadian classic. Check it out at the Sterndale  Bennett Theatre tonight , then Oct. 2-6 at 8 p.m. each night. There is also a 1 p.m.matinee, Oct. 6.

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat.
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