Backstairs Billy review – Duke of York’s theatre

Image above: Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans in ‘Backstairs Billy’; Photograph MGC

Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans in a new comedy by Marcelo Dos Santos

Backstairs Billy is the new comedy at the Duke of York’s theatre in the West End, with Penelope Wilton in the role as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Luke Evans as ‘Backstairs Billy’.

It is a fictional confection based loosely on the true story of the Queen Mother and her relationship with William Tallon, her ‘Page of the Back Stairs’. He started work with the royal family as a junior assistant at the age of 15, trained as a footman, went to work at Clarence House and remained her servant for over forty years until her death in 2002.

They are an odd couple to say the least, although in Marcelo Dos Santos’ play they share the same ‘show must go on’ campness as they gear themselves up to face a succession of visitors from Mr and Mrs Boring from Buckinghamshire to a barking mad debutante who ‘came out’ at the same time as her highness.

That is one of many such puns about old queens, which are perfectly delivered and none the less amusing for their obviousness.

It also seems a strange time to focus on the Queen Mother, with all the drama of the Queen’s death, the King’s coronation and the banishment / self-detachment of Prince Harry and Meghan as potential material. But it is a delightful production, all the more interesting for being a tale that is not widely known. The real William Tallon always refused media interviews and never wrote a memoir, though there was a biography written about him.

Image above: Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; Photograph MGC

Penelope Wilton is a joy to watch. She often gets to play up the old lady, apparently a bit dotty but actually sharp as a tack, a touch eccentric but surprisingly down to earth. That is the impression you get of the Queen Mother from all that has been written about her.

Here she is rather lonely, suddenly finding herself without a partner and without a purpose after her husband King George VI had died and her own role as Queen had come to an end after 16 years of ruling what was still an empire.

She has been both literally and figuratively sidelined, as her daughter has taken over as Queen and she is shunted off to Clarence House to create a new role for herself. Billy is characterised as a breath of fresh air – confident, entertaining, a companion who was at her side from early morning until when she went to bed, anticipating her every need, knowing what she liked and generally cheering her up.

Image above: Luke Evans  as Backstairs Billy; Photograph MGC

He was in his element. The real William Tallon had written to the royal family wanting to work for them for five years, since the age of ten, before he got his opportunity to join the royal household at 15. He seems genuinely to have loved the life of a servant, in which everything had its place and there was an order and a right way of doing things.

In the play, his personal life as a gay man in 1970s London was riotous, and as it spills over into his work life, where there are powerful enemies who do not approve of him or his lifestyle, jealous of his sway over the Queen Mother, his pre-eminent position in the household is threatened and the idyllic relationship between Queen and servant unravels.

I have just seen Noises Off – the current production with Felicity Kendal. Backstairs Billy has a similar kind of feel to it – it’s a vehicle for a Grande Dame of English theatre, which is fast paced and funny, not too taxing on the brain cells; not too deep or thought provoking, but with enough meat to make it interesting; a farce with props disappearing and reappearing when they are least welcome; just a delicious bit of fun.

Directed by the Olivier award-winning Michael Grandage, Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s theatre runs until Saturday 27 January 2024.

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