'Backstairs Billy' review – this lively new comedy about the Queen Mother is a right royal romp
Read our four-star review of Backstairs Billy, starring Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans, now in performances at the Duke of York's Theatre to 27 January 2024.
The royal family continues to be an irresistible source of drama. The final season of The Crown is coming soon, and on stage we’ve got depictions of Princess Diana in The Interview and musical Diana. In his new comedy Backstairs Billy, Marcelo Dos Santos tells a lesser-known story about the late Queen Mother and her loyal page William Tallon.
As Page of the Backstairs, Billy held a privileged position. He ran the Queen Mother’s affairs at Clarence House for 50 years, overseeing everything from floral arrangements to the care of her corgis, and ensuring her meetings ran smoothly.
We see a very funny example of the latter in the play, which is set in 1979. Her Majesty’s stodgy, budget-conscious private secretary, Mr Kerr, has foisted two boring last-minute guests upon her – and, worst of all, they don’t drink. Billy gets around that by spiking their “cordial”, much to the horror of naïve new Welsh footman Gwydion.
But, in Penelope Wilton’s wonderfully witty portrayal, we soon learn that Her Majesty hates dullness more than anything. Razor-sharp behind that pastel-hued exterior, she acidly teases her quaking visitors (everyone gets tongue-tied in her company) and shares fascinating titbits. For example, the mime Marcel Marceau was, she confides, surprisingly chatty.
Billy is always there: topping up drinks, or supplying items from the royal archives as conversation-starters. He’s essentially the stage manager for this piece of theatre, making the Queen Mother feel like a star.
Should we care about a servant indulging a cossetted royal? Dos Santos sharply contrasts this idyllic bubble with a nation in crisis: economic hardship, strikes, protests. The Queen Mother is still a beloved figure because of her courage during the Second World War, when she refused to leave a bombed-out London, but this Edwardian figure now looks obsolete.
That’s her personal fear too. In a poignant flashback, we see her arriving at Clarence House in mourning. Overnight, she’s lost her husband, her leadership role, her home, and her daughter. Enter a 15-year-old Billy, thrilled to exchange provincial working-class life for this glamour. He makes her laugh – and makes her feel important. In the present day, she’s lonely and isolated; Princess Margaret is meant to visit, but stands her up.
So, in exchange, she accepts this wickedly catty, flamboyantly gay man – although Dos Santos fascinatingly complicates her allyship. It’s partly selfish: his sexuality meant he was unable to have a family, so could commit fully to her. However, the high-stakes farce of the second half, involving a male prostitute and a phallic artwork, results in an odd exchange in which Her Majesty suddenly treats Billy sadistically, which doesn’t really track.
Wilton and Luke Evans are otherwise a sparkling double act, whether verbally sparring or waltzing together. In a rich performance, Evans gives us a conflicted Billy who both revels in “the proper way of doing things” and yet constantly rebels. It’s partly insecurity (Mr Kerr nastily jibes that he’ll never be “one of us”), but also the price you pay for subsuming your life in someone else’s.
Michael Grandage’s handsome production gives you that thrill of a backstage glimpse. In Christopher Oram’s grand design, Clarence House’s Garden Room is a pink floral explosion, presided over by a vast chandelier. We get upstairs/downstairs details: the footmen are only allowed to walk around the edge of the rug. There are also real corgis, much to the audience’s delight, although one upstages the principals in a key climactic moment.
But this impeccably played comedy of manners nicely balances palace gossip with broader ideas about class, power, and way that tradition can both comfort and stifle. Billy made “time stand still” for Her Majesty. We can’t live in the past forever, but this lively visit is a right royal romp.
Photo credit: Backstairs Billy (Photo by Johan Persson)
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