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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Susannah Clapp

The week in theatre: Backstairs Billy; The Box of Delights; Brenda’s Got a Baby – review

Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother, with Luke Evans as William ‘Billy’ Tallon, in Backstairs Billy.
‘She treats an overcooked egg as if it were an insurgent’: Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother, with Luke Evans as William ‘Billy’ Tallon, in Backstairs Billy. Photograph: Johan Persson

It’s frisky and eye-rolling – and lit up by a performance that subdued this least monarchical of critics. Backstairs Billy, a fictional frolic based on the relationship between the late Queen Mother and William Tallon, her servant for more than 50 years, makes no claim to historical revelation. Still, it is more than a caper. Set in 1979, Marcelo Dos Santos’s new play glances at a country on the cusp of Thatcherite change; it finds in its characters two apparent opposites yoked by mutual dependence – and by ricocheting puns.

Inside Clarence House, corgis waddle (and worse) across a rug that is off-limits to servants. Outside, there are riots in Southall (ah, muses the QM, “South Hall” – haven’t we just had it repainted?). At teatime, Billy is busy lacing the drinks of teetotallers; at night, he and his fellow servants scamper through corridors half naked, sometimes with rent boys. “Queen” is not the only word that does some heavy lifting; “backstairs” drifts insinuatingly across the action. When an ex-deb yells about coming out, the conversation pings electrically.

Dos Santos is stronger on phrase-making than on plot: the play’s pivotal confrontation and its satirical sketches are less memorable than its central, intriguing dialogues. As Billy, Luke Evans – who has a sweet younger version in Ilan Galkoff – preens and idolises persuasively, as if shaping up for television celebrity. Penelope Wilton is magnificent. Slightly bleak, vaguely beaming, she never does anything obvious. Her glide contains unexpected notes of turbulence; her gestures are punchy. She treats an overcooked egg as if it were an insurgent.

Michael Grandage’s fleetly choreographed production reveals much silently, through Christopher Oram’s luscious design. The Clarence House drawing room is papered in dusty pink with a tracery of flowers. On the walls are dozens of paintings – of roses. Each occasional table supports a bouquet. And in the middle of this petal heaven, the QM is wearing floral robes. The humorous visual smothering is part of another double story. The cast’s spot-on period tweeds, flares and minis, as well as palace uniforms, are designed by Oram, but Wilton’s gowns are finely created by Tom Rand, who first worked with her 40 years ago on the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Giving her a rounder shape, he clothes her in citrus and in powder-puff explosions of frills, in a hat like a sapphire boat, and a glitter of black mourning. A world apart.

When John Masefield saw the Royal Shakespeare theatre reduced to embers after a catastrophic fire in 1926, he said it was “like poetry dying”. I feel the same about the RSC’s large, effervescent but ultimately enervating production of the one-time poet laureate’s 1935 children’s novel The Box of Delights.

The Box of Delights.
‘A plethora of stuff’: The Box of Delights. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Adapted by Piers Torday and directed by Justin Audibert (who, having run the Unicorn theatre, now takes over as artistic director at Chichester), it certainly seizes Masefield’s central theme: the transporting and healing power of the imagination. It is full of physical energy, summoning a plethora of stuff and colour to trace the magical adventures of a young boy caught between the powers of a good and a bad sorcerer. Mention a train and a model version is borne aloft in segments by actors; when a flood is needed, the entire John Lewis bed-linen department billows in blue across the stage. A huge puppet phoenix glitters; an endearing puppet dog wags; children fly high in surgical-looking slings, and have a go at being a duck by wearing yellow caps and a trout by donning grey waterproofs. Videos by Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown engulf Tom Piper’s sometimes quaint facades with snowstorms and sunbursts of orange. Yet the more the evening yells imagination – with low- and hi-tech – the less dreamlike it becomes; strenuous merriment dispels mystery.

Claire Price is a beautifully silky gun-toting villainess. Jack Humphrey, lanky in long grey socks and school cap, is very funny as a child version of Jacob Rees-Mogg with added self-awareness: “Am I a plank?” Still, for too much of the time the stage looks stolid with bishops and worthies and maids and middle-aged carol singers, served up with occasional comic touches. Masefield’s world of the daydreaming child, escaping unhappiness, has not dated, but it seems so here.

David Byrne, who next year takes over as artistic director of the Royal Court, leaves the New Diorama in zinging form, having premiered not only Operation Mincemeat but also For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, the latter a joint production with Ryan Calais Cameron’s Nouveau Riche. Brenda’s Got a Baby, a new play by the British-Ghanaian playwright Jessica Hagan, author of Queens of Sheba, is a further collaboration by the two companies.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Jahmila Heath in Brenda’s Got a Baby.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Jahmila Heath in Brenda’s Got a Baby: ‘an evening of intermittent gleams’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this is an evening of intermittent gleams. Insight into the literally maddening pressure on coming-up-to-30 women to reproduce; chilling statistics about the different outcomes in pregnancy for black and white women; comic turns from a holy, dopey rapper and an overbearing mother who instructs her grown daughter about how to wash out all her nooks and crannies; a gasp-provoking plot twist. Yet the play doesn’t find a central pulse. Its effect echoes that of TK Hay’s telling design, in which outsize fluorescent jigsaw pieces form a background in which chinks become increasingly wide gaps. All things bright but fragmentary.

Star ratings (out of five)
Backstairs Billy
The Box of Delights ★★
Brenda’s Got a Baby ★★★

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