Penelope Wilton is resplendent as the Queen Mother in new comedy Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s Theatre
“When you two old queens have finished bickering, this old queen would like a drink”
With Netflix preparing to release the sixth and final series of The Crown, conversations about the dramatisation of the lives of the royal family are already ramping up once again, but it is hard to imagine that there’d be too many people complaining about the treatment that the Queen Mother receives here. Marcelo Dos Santos’ Backstairs Billy tells the story of her page William Tallon, a man who served the royal estate in one way or another for over 50 years and in true light entertainment style, offers a most moreish confection.
Set in 1979, we meet Tallon as he is promoted to Page of the Backstairs, a lofty position responsible for managing so much of the detail and comfort of the Queen Mother’s life at Clarence House. A jug of gin and Dubonnet always at the ready, advising the many visitors of the ins and outs of royal protocol, Billy relishes his position of enormous privilege and power, especially as he seemingly gets to indulge his every whim.
This is brilliantly explored in a hilarious opening scene with him toying mercilessly with a group of visitors who are already nervous at meeting the Queen Mother, he spikes the beverages of the ones that don’t drink and chaos ensues. He would of course defend himself by saying his mistress hates nothing so much as dullness but it shows the level of ego we’re looking at, something that threatens to crash down around his ears though when he is caught bringing back his latest shag and loyalties are severely tested.
Penelope Wilton is superb as the Queen Mother, all wafty bright florals and razor-sharp in wit. Dos Santos respectfully suggests something of her interior life – her sadness at being widowed so soon and the loss of her position, exacerbated by what feels like exile away from the palace. And it is this sense of isolation that Luke Evans’ Billy seeks to banish, his place at her side since he was 15 always to make her laugh.
Evans is also excellent, his haughtiness easily melted into camp joy at the sight of a willing audience. And there’s real interest in the way the acceptance, or rather tolerance, of his sexuality is dealt with, lest we recast the Queen Mother as a rainbow flag-waving ally. Indeed, a late shift in tone leaves us in no doubt as to the reality of the power dynamic which Wilton sells with flint-cold conviction as we’re left in real conflict about the whole affair.
Dos Santos’ writing points up the societal turmoil of the time too, the unrest of the late 1970s seeking to broach even these hallowed walls but it is all played with a relatively light touch – references to my bit of South London, the funniest joke involving the name Ian and a large dildo all amused me greatly. And supporting performances from Nicola Sloane, Michael Simkins and Emily Barber as various guests are pitched perfectly, as is Eloka Ivo’s rakish Ian.
Michael Grandage’s return to the West End is thus a total crowd-pleaser, right down to the corgis who scamper across the lush rugs of Christopher Oram’s suitably palatial design. It is hardly earth-shatteringly revelatory but then who is expecting it to be? It is light entertainment in the best sense and marks a much welcome return to the London stage for both Wilton and Evans in exceptional form.