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Eric Peterson plays First World War aviator Billy Bishop.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Globe and Mail Update

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Billy Bishop Goes to War
Written by
John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson
Directed by
Ted Dykstra
Actors
Eric Peterson
Music
John MacLachlan Gray with Eric Peterson
Venue
Young Centre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, August 05, 2017

It's impossible for me to really separate Billy Bishop Goes to War from my own history with the show – but then that seems to be the case for the musical's creators, Eric Peterson and John MacLachlan Gray, as well.

The spectres of performances past haunt the actor and the composer's latest return to their beloved two-hander about the Canadian First World War flying ace, now on stage at Soulpepper in Toronto for the summer of the sesquicentennial – while most of the theatre company is down in New York courting stateside success the way Peterson and Gray did 35 years ago when they took Billy Bishop to Broadway.

As director Ted Dykstra and designer Camelia Koo's production begins, the stage looks like a convention of ghosts – white sheets draped over hidden set pieces, the on-stage piano and even Peterson himself, sitting in a chair. The actor pulls his sheet off, slowly, first only his head emerging – as it did out of a trash-can when he played Nagg in Samuel Beckett's Endgame.

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Peterson – or is it Bishop? – then shuffles around the stage as Gray vamps behind the piano. He yanks the other sheets aside, dust flying into the air, revealing prop trunks that purport to be from Billy Bishop Goes to War's previous runs at Vancouver East Cultural Centre (where it premiered in 1978), the Morosco in New York (1980), the Comedy Theatre in London (1981), the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (most recently in 1998, as part of a 20th-anniversary tour).

These trunks were all there the last time Billy Bishop was at Soulpepper in 2009 – when the actor was about the age the aviator from Owen Sound was when he died.

Now, however, there's another trunk. It's marked Soulpepper.

So, Dykstra's production may look similar, but it has changed – the show shifting from the metatheatrical to the metaphysical realm, from end of life to the afterlife.

On the surface, Billy Bishop Goes to War is rather straightforward – a rueful, reluctantly patriotic play with music about the famous Canadian's journey from a misfit who cheated his way through Royal Military College to his return from war as a colonial hero with the Victoria Cross.

But the meaning of the musical has always shifted in revivals.

I first saw Peterson play the role at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1999, during its 20th-anniversary tour. For that production, Peterson and Gray had aged Bishop, so the character was now telling his story to young recruits headed off to the Second World War – and wondering what, exactly, the first one had been all about.

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But, to me, Peterson was also a stage legend telling a war story from Canadian theatre to the next generation, with a similar message: You can make it all the way to Broadway, but you'll still end up back in Winnipeg in the middle of winter.

I was working as one of the front-of-house staff at MTC at the time – my part-time job, and the way I got free tickets to the theatre before I discovered my current racket. The next time I saw Peterson play Bishop, just over a decade later at Soulpepper, I was still fairly new in my role as the theatre critic at this newspaper. In 1998, I asked Peterson for an autograph after the show; in 2009, I went home and gave it four stars.

Not quite 10 years have passed again. Now, here is a 70-year-old man in front of me playing the same part, a fellow who has lived seven years longer than Bishop did.

In the first act, it seems Peterson can't quite get his lines right; he repeats certain phrases and runs out of breath. When he hits a moment or a scene just right, he's charming as ever – but some of the story gets garbled and it seems altogether too realistically like when my grandmother, a veteran herself of the Second World War, tries to tell a story these days.

But then in the second act, Peterson is electric, as sharp as ever – singing with his bathrobe falling off his shoulder as the Lovely Hélene in a French club, reciting The Ballad of Albert Ball without hesitating a beat and bringing the audience to tears each time he repeats "the British like their heroes cold and dead, or so it seems."

When acting out Bishop's famous solo attack on a German aerodrome, he climbs up on a piano with a toy plane in front of his charming on-stage partner Gray and rat-a-tat-tats away.

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Sitting in the audience, you're left with a puzzle – one that may vary from performance to performance. Were the difficulties Peterson was having in the first act just an act? Or did he just take some time to warm up?

Dykstra has cleverly created an atmosphere where either scenario is fine, where you can ponder what survival really means – in war, in theatre, in life.

First-time viewers may be a little perplexed. But I can't be that viewer again. I feel like I've been watching Peterson age on stage all my life and seeing him as Bishop again is only a reminder that I am aging too. When we reconnect in this strange way, performer and audience member, I feel the distance between the present and the past in a deep way that gives me existential shudders as much as any play by Beckett.

Billy Bishop Goes to War runs until Aug. 5 (soulpepper.ca).

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