Review: BACKSTAIRS BILLY, Duke of York's Theatre

A royal romp you won't want to miss

By: Nov. 08, 2023
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Review: BACKSTAIRS BILLY, Duke of York's Theatre
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Backstairs BillyAs the curtain rises, we’re met with a sea of pink – pink damask walls and heavy pink velvet curtains, with pink and white flowers adorning every available surface. This is the Garden Room at Clarence House (brilliantly designed by Christopher Oram), and the year is 1979.

Backstairs Billy, written by Marcelo Dos Santos, tells the story of William ‘Billy’ Tallon, the page to the Queen Mother for over half a century. After entering the Royal Household at the age of 15, Billy became the one constant to the Queen Mother as she faced numerous changes in her life. From being widowed unexpectedly and moving from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House, going from Queen to The Queen Mother and feeling forgotten by her family as they became busier with royal engagements, he remains steadfastly by her side.

Responsible for the smooth running of the household, Billy (Luke Evans) makes sure the floral arrangements are exact and meetings with members of the public run effortlessly – no one is allowed to bore The Queen Mother (Penelope Wilton). He even spikes the guest’s cordial in order to liven up proceedings.

Billy relishes in lording his power over the more junior members of the household, particularly with new younh Welsh recruit Gwydion (Iwan Davies). The two have much in common, both started working for the Royal Family at a young age and are from working class backgrounds. Yet Gwydion doesn’t seem as enthralled with life at Clarence House as a 15-year-old Billy seems to be when we encounter him in flashbacks.

Evans is wonderful as the flamboyant and mischievous Page of the Backstairs. Although there are moments where the audience are aghast at the way he takes advantage of his position and the relationship he has with the Queen Mother, Evans’s Billy exudes charm, able to quickly win them back over.

Michael Grandage’s production allows Wilton to showcase her impeccable comedic style and she delivers her lines with precision and wit. Each joke lands with the audience and she brilliantly humanises the Queen Mother. Wilton and Evans are a delightful duo, bouncing off each other effortlessly.

Things take a slightly strange turn in the second act, when a male vistors trip to Clarence House results in a fall from grace, with the Queen Mother humiliating Billy, treating him like an animal; presumably to remind him who's really in charge. Given the close relationship that the rest of the production is careful to craft, it feels out of character and jarring.

But Backstairs Billy portrays the Queen Mother’s acceptance of Billy’s sexuality well, even though a rival courtier (played by Ian Drysdale) frowns upon it. The pacing is just right and ultimately Dos Santos' witty writing, combined with Grandage’s direction and a talented group of actors make this one royal romp you won't want to miss.

Backstairs Billy runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 27 January.

Image credit: Johan Persson


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