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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Backstairs Billy review – anodyne comedy about the Queen Mother and her servant

Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos at the Duke of York’s theatre.
Worshipful approach … Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos at the Duke of York’s theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

She was the Queen Mother, he was the page who came to service at the age of 15 and worked with her for half a century until her dying day. But if it sounds like a drama akin to Queen Victoria’s cross-class friendship with John Brown, this new play starring Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans is not quite as deep or meaningful as that.

Set in 1979, just before Margaret Thatcher’s election victory, Marcelo Dos Santos’s script draws soft, safe comedy from rumours that while William “Billy” Tallon worked for “ma’am”, he brought back rent boys. The Queen Mother is a widow, no longer at the coalface of royal duties, now at Clarence House where she is barely visited by the rest of the Firm. Billy is “page of the backstairs” and enjoying life as a queer man, inviting a pick-up, Ian (Eloka Ivo, slowly but satisfyingly socialist), to his royal digs.

Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy.
Page turner … Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy. Photograph: Johan Persson

There are two “queens” here, or so the repeated joke goes, along with double entendres on “hung” that might have made Larry Grayson wince. In a production directed by Michael Grandage, the plot involves a rival courtier (Ian Drysdale) keen to see Billy ousted, and a giant dildo that aspiring artist Ian has sculpted which is on the loose inside the royal residence.

Evans is lovably roguish and charming while Wilton would not look out of place in The Crown. The rest of the cast play below-stairs comic types such as callow Welshman Gwydion (Iwan Davies) and exaggerated aristos. The writing has sophistication and some jokes are funny but this is the epitome of theatre as light entertainment. A worshipful approach to the Queen Mother means the play is so careful not to offend that it ends up anodyne, with Billy stating that she is the “bee’s knees” when Ian calls her an “old lady”. “She risked her life for this country,” Billy says, and adds, with all earnestness: “… to smile and wave even when she was in the most terrible pain”.

The comedy develops from her various meetings with guests as well as her musings on life, with an occasional hissy fit (over a boiled egg in one scene) which bears shades of King Charles’s ink-pen distemper.

The Queen Mother says, indirectly, that she accepts Billy’s sexuality which is fascinating, especially given the historic legal exemptions the royal household secured around ethnically diverse staff. But a potentially untold queer narrative about sexual diversity in the royal household does not really develop.

The corgis that occasionally run across the stage raise “ahhhhs” and it all slips down easily but with no challenge or emotional underpinning. At one point, the Queen Mother says she likes TV comedy where people do accents and walk into things. No doubt she would have loved this.

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