Backstairs Billy

Marcelo Dos Santos
MGC and Sand & Snow Entertainment
Duke of York's Theatre

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Luke Evans as Billy and Penelope Wilton as Queen Mother Credit: Johan Persson
Luke Evans as Billy and Emily Barber as Annabel Maud Credit: Johan Persson
Luke Evans as Billy and Penelope Wilton as Queen Mother Credit: Johan Persson
Luke Evans as Billy and Eloka Ivo as Ian Credit: Johan Persson
Ilan Galkoff as Young Billy Credit: Johan Persson
Ian Drysdale as Kerr Credit: Johan Persson
Iwan Davies as Gwydon Credit: Johan Persson
Penelope Wilton as Queen Mother Credit: Johan Persson
Nicola Sloane as Mrs Harrington-Bahr and Michael Simkins as Mr Harrington-Bahr Credit: Johan Persson

Billy is William Tallon, personal servant to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, his official title Steward and Page of the Backstairs, who was with her at Clarence House from when she moved in until the day she died. Dos Santos's play is a comedy that depicts their relationship.

It is set in a room at Clarence House grandly evoked in Christopher Orams’s set with pink wallpaper, pink damask curtains, 16 paintings of pink roses and a pink carpet across which real corgis dash from Her Majesty’s private room to the garden.

Penelope Wllton is delightful in pastel frocks, letting herself relax with Billy but capturing too the loneliness and sense of loss of a Queen whose family too seldom visit and who misses being at the heart of things, while Luke Evans captures the campness that underlies Billy's formal stance; this is a servant who knows just how far he can go with his familiarities, but, as he observes, “there are two queens in this castle”.

A flashback to their first meeting, when Billy was a callow 15, shows the beginning of their relationship, Her Majesty facing a new life with trepidation that young Billy (Ilan Galkoff) can lighten, and that is the core of the play. What little plot there is concerns Billy’s amorous adventures which put things in jeopardy. It becomes Ortonesque when one of his pick-ups, black sculptor Ian (Eloka Ivo), has to be passed off as a Lesotho prince and a carving that he calls Black Dawn pops up at a royal tea party. It may be symbolic but it looks like a big black dildo.

Things turn farcical when Billy tries to liven up tedious tea parties, serving alcohol-powered punch to toffee-nosed teetotal guests (classic caricatures from Michael Simkins and Nicola Sloane) with Emily Barber as an actress in Her Majesty’s favourite soap.

There is an ongoing confrontation between the Queen Mother’s Secretary, Mr Kerr (Ian Drysdale), drafted in by the Palace to cut expenditure, and Billy. Kerr tries to use Billy’s young assistant to catch him out, but Iwan Davies’s Gwydion is a younger version of Billy with whom he’s complicit.

Though the main action is set in 1979 with Arthur Scargill leading the miners and Margaret Thatcher poised for Number 10, a contrast to the cosy cushions of Clarence House, Michael Grandage’s production plays down the politics, though Ian gets a brief political outburst while being passed of as a legitimate visitor. Instead Downstairs Billy indulges the audience with camp comedy, but there is a poignancy alongside the laughter and royal tolerance has a moment of savagery.

Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans proffer a partnership to relish that those corgis can’t begin to compete with.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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