Nicola Sloane appears in the world première of Marcelo Dos Santos’ new play Backstairs Billy which looks at a pivotal moment in the 50 year relationship between the Queen Mother and her loyal servant William “Billy” Tallon.
Joining Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother and Luke Evans as Billy, are Emily Barber, Iwan Davies, Ian Drysdale, Ilan Galkoff, Eloka Ivo, Michael Simkins, Nicola Sloane, with David Buttle, Amy Newton, Keanu Adolphus Johnson, Georgie Rhys and Jacob Ethan Tanner.
Michael Grandage’s production opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 7 November, with previews from 27 October, and runs until 27 January.
You’re appearing in Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s Theatre, what can you tell us about this new play?
Backstairs Billy is based on the autobiography of William Tallon, who loyally served the Queen Mother for almost 50 years. It shows how extraordinarily close their relationship was from their first meeting when Billy was 15 through to 1979. It is full of humour & poignancy, and depicts Billy’s utter loyalty, spiced up with his flair, love of all things theatrical; but above all his naughtiness.
What was it about Marcelo Dos Santos’ script that excited you the most?
On first reading Marcelo’s script I was delighted by how very funny it is. Defining a period when taboos and political correctness were not so apparent in our lives. Also his use of language and vocabulary, which are rich and erudite (especially for Billy). Each phrase or word Marcelo uses has been carefully selected to highlight the speech of that time. I love vocabulary and humour, so was delighted by both.
We’ve experienced such a big change in the Royal Family this past year, how do you think audiences will react to being transported back to the days of the Queen Mother?
You have only to look at the success of virtually any period drama on TV, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, The Crown etc, to see that we are still fascinated by days gone by and the Royal Family; so I think this will appeal to a huge demographic. Even if they are not Royalists, I believe this will appeal, as it glimpses a fly on the wall experience of things we would not, otherwise, be aware of. The anarchy in the piece is also very pertinent and funny.
How much did you already know about the Queen Mother and her loyal servant, and what’s surprised you the most about the story?
I only really knew about the QM from TV documentaries, showing her and the King refusing to leave Buckingham Palace in the Blitz because they felt they should experience what their subjects were going through, to show solidarity. The Queen Mother when challenged once about her sumptuous outfits when meeting people who had been bombed out, retaliated and said: ‘it was expected of her, and because these were such grey and desperate times, people were uplifted to see that she hadn’t dropped her standards and gave their lives a bit of glamour & colour.
I knew nothing about William Tallon, so asked a friend of mine who had worked in the Royal Household of Queen Elizabeth II. He said he’d met Billy on several occasions when the QM visited Sandringham and Windsor. He remembered Billy’s badly dyed black hair, that he was quite a character and very camp, but they all loved him!
What surprised me most, was how moving the piece is. The loneliness of a monarch widowed at a relatively early age, then relegated to Clarence House. She was surrounded by staff, but as they say, lonely in a crowd, as apart from Billy, she didn’t really have anyone to confide in. There is also a strange co-dependency, as Billy is as lonely and reliant on her in some ways.
Tell us a little about your characters and what you’re enjoying most about the roles?
In Act 1 I play Mrs Harrington-Bahr, described by Billy as Home County cadavers. She is head of the Hertfordshire WI, full of her own importance, but in awe of the QM & all things Royal.
Act 2 sees me as the fey, slightly dotty Lady Adeline, who is probably in the early stages of dementia. I love Adeline, as there is a wistful truth about her, and she is funny by default because she is away with the fairies & either hasn’t heard or has forgotten where she is.
What are you looking forward to most about working with Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans as the Queen Mother and Billy?
It has been so interesting watching Penelope and Luke in rehearsals. Their artistry, technique and skill. They are both very friendly and warm. So I’m looking forward to the run, and getting to know them more. They are generous as actors, which makes sharing a stage with them delightful, and rewarding.
And what’s it been like working with director Michael Grandage?
This is the first time I’ve worked with Michael and I must say how much I enjoy how he runs his rehearsal room. He regales us with funny stories pertinent to the script and having been an actor himself understands how debilitating it can be to have all the actors in the room, all the time. So he only calls us in when working on our specific scenes. He has assembled a wonderful cast; leads by example, being patient, responsive to suggestions, approachable & intuitive, all of which make for a very happy atmosphere.
What would you say to anyone thinking of booking to see Backstairs Billy?
To those people thinking of coming to the play, I’d say “don’t just think about it, book a ticket, as you won’t be disappointed. It’s very funny, touching, nostalgic with a wonderful cast. Just to see Penelope and Luke onstage rather than on screen is a bonus and there are real corgi’s, so what’s not to like?!