Tag Archives: Jimmy Walters

“Billy Bishop Goes to War” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

This low-key play from John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson tells the true story of a Canadian WWI pilot and makes for a surprisingly gentle commemoration in the Great War’s anniversary year. Our hero, Billy, is pleasingly unusual: an unwilling recruit, accident-prone yet “gifted” and achieving a record “score” for kills. For most of the play, he is shockingly callow. It’s really Charles Aitken’s commandingly affable performance throughout that makes him watchable. Aitken grafts like a real trooper and carries a heavy burden. From caddish bounder to troubled boozer (and doubling as a couple of female parts along with way), he forces energy into a flat script again and again.

Oliver Beamish joins as an older Billy. Director Jimmy Walters allies the roles well, with solid work throughout, but the Billy who looks back at his youth is wasted and simply wallows in nostalgia. It’s with a small number of cameos that Beamish can come into his own, injecting, possibly too much, humour into the story. The japes around Billy’s scrapes go on too long and are repetitive, with weak jokes. The rest of the time Beamish accompanies on the piano – this is a play with music – but sadly the refrains are poor and the lyrics awful.

The play doesn’t get serious until after the interval – fair enough – maybe that was Billy’s personal experience. But then we get more music… and it doesn’t improve in quality. Walters highlights the play’s most interesting features – the role of Britain’s colonies in the war and the idea that the motherland likes its heroes dead – but the play itself doesn’t explore either enough. Worse still, Bishop’s “bloodthirsty” battle lust, so honestly admitted, is left unexamined. The drama and the horror of war are insufficiently evoked. In one sense, this is a useful corrective aside from the more prevalent glory-or-guts narratives of conflict. But the thrill of the kill should lead to a chill in the theatre that is conspicuous by its absence.

Until 24 November 2018


Photo by Robert Workman

“Square Rounds” at the Finborough Theatre

Examining conflict through science, in particular the chemistry behind World War I, Tony Harrison’s 1992 play is full of fascinating history. The research behind weaponry and drawn-out moral questions are consistently interesting: the work of Fritz Haber on both fertilisers and poisoned gas – and the Maxim brothers’ inventions – are stuff it’s unlikely you learned at school. Combined with a background of Imperialism and societal change (from women at work to spiritualism), Square Rounds is epic, even before you consider it is written in verse.

Introducing rhyme almost from the start, Harrison’s text cannot fail to impress. The use of language is joyous, which sometimes feels discordant given the subject matter. Rather, taking on science – pointing out its magical overtones – the lines issue a challenge as the lyrical work matches Rationalism with cunning and a ruthless edge. The play is remarkably cold, chilling at times, as it lays bare the inevitability of arms races or ironically sets out arguments for mad weapons in a logical fashion.

Gracy Goldman
Gracy Goldman

Some heart is added to the play with the relationship of Haber and his wife Clara Immerwahr, also a scientist, who argues against her husband’s collaboration with the Kaiser. It’s the strongest scene and has the best performances, from Philippa Quinn (pictured top) and Gracy Goldman, respectively. The production boasts all-female performers – a bold casting decision and a clever one – there are several scenes where the action is more layered as a result. The cast also doubles up effectively, and the multiple roles are tackled well, especially by Letty Thomas. The performers are not helped by an insistence on using the accents of various German and American characters. True, much is made of nationhood in the script, even some puns, but the delivery here is too broad and the result sounds forced. Thankfully, the technique isn’t adopted for a scene set in modern-day China (I told you the play was epic) and the result is much happier.

The question of accents aside – surely a misjudgement – director Jimmy Walters has a good go at matching Harrison’s wit and imagination. The production is clear and concise, the use of music more hit than miss, the set (from Daisy Blower), with its connotations of magic acts, is clever. If not quite the revival a play this strong deserves (it was originally staged at the National Theatre’s Olivier and its ambition calls out for a large venue), there’s plenty of talent to make this opportunity to see such an original piece worthwhile. There’s quite rightly a lot of commemoration of World War I in this anniversary year, but little of it has a perspective this novel or long-sighted.

Until 29 September 2018


Photos by S R Taylor Photography

“Mrs Orwell” at the Southwark Playhouse

Tony Cox’s play, a sell-out at the Old Red Lion Theatre, should enjoy continued success with this transfer south of the river. A careful mix of literary biography and period detail, it’s a calm and stately piece, with Jimmy Walters’ direction adding to the air of polished professionalism.

As George Orwell lies dying in a far from down-and-out hospital room, he declares his love for the young and glamorous Sonia Brownell. The proposal is that she becomes his “literary widow” as much as wife and, to the quaint surprise of all, she accepts.

Orwell’s eccentricity is utilised for entertainment. With the exception of a brief Marquis de Sade moment it’s all endearingly old-fashioned. And there’s masses of name dropping fun as Lucian Freud draws Orwell’s portrait and starts an affair with Sonia. Freud makes a lovely cameo for Edmund Digby Jones who doesn’t hold back on the Bohemian flair – all the better as a foil to “Grumpy George”.

Cressida Bonas takes the title role, while Peter Hamilton Dyer as Orwell is really the focus. His is a careful study – his depiction of tuberculosis impressive, while conveying insecurities, intelligence and flashes of rage. The perfectly cast Bonas feels like a natural in the part – you can easily imagine her at the Café Royal. It’s a shame we run out of time for Sonia’s character to develop. What she’ll do as Orwell’s executor is full of dramatic potential.

Disappointingly, the play falls apart at Orwell’s death. There’s a bizarre rant from his publisher (played by Robert Stocks), left sweating in the scrabble to send us away with some facts. It’s a clumsy lapse of confidence to end a pleasantly nostalgic and convincing glimpse at literary genius in a bygone age.

Until 23 September 2017


Photo by Samuel Taylor