In her one hundred and two years, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother lived an extraordinary life, but perhaps just as curious was the life of one of her favourite servants, the Page of the Backstairs, William ‘Billy’ Tallon. Marcelo Dos Santos explores the relationship between the unlikely pair in the new play Backstairs Billy now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.
It’s a fitting venue for a story about the Duchess who unexpectedly became Queen, and prematurely found herself as the Dowager. Directed by Michael Grandage, Backstairs Billy is a rip-roaring comedy, and is surprisingly funny for a story set in the very upper echelons of British society.
Billy always seems to be one step ahead in terms of catering to Her Majesty, and we observe how he sets up the Garden Room in Clarence House for the arrival of a select few guests who will take tea (though more likely alcohol) with Her Majesty. We see this type of scene twice with Emily Barber, Nicola Sloane and Michael Simkins playing the guests at both gatherings.
But this is Billy’s story more than the Queen Mum’s, so we also get flashbacks to a younger Billy (Ilan Galkoff) joining service at the age of fifteen and becoming spellbound by Her Majesty’s presence, as well as Billy’s later control over the staff in the palace.
Like many of the men in service (so Dos Santos’ tells us) Billy was gay, something which The Queen Mother – born in 1900 remember – was not only comfortable with but happily embraced. Backstairs Billy uses his sexuality as the basis on which everything else is presented, and as well as flamboyant innuendo aplenty there’s some consideration to the prejudice Billy would have faced.
The play, especially in the first act, fluctuates between old-fashioned sitcom and traditional British farce. When Billy brings Ian (Eloka Ivo) back to the palace he must first pretend he’s his cousin, and then a visiting Royal from Lesotho, to add to the hilarity, Ian is an artist and his sculpture of a Black phallus ends up in the wrong hands. The second act tones down the comedy in favour of looking more closely at the dynamic between the pair, but what remains is Billy’s diva like tendencies.
Penelope Wilton is delightful as The Queen Mother (how did The Crown manage to get it so wrong when Wilton is so perfect for the role?), not impersonating the gracious lady, but instead bringing her own sense of the familiar character to life, especially in one of the flashback scenes when she arrives at Clarence House following her husband’s funeral.
There are moments of sadness floating in the sea of laughs, we see the Queen Mum as a lonely figure who revels in the hijinks of Billy, played with fervour and flair by Luke Evans. Evans’ delivery of caustic one-liners is delectable and his interactions with new recruit Gwydion (an entertaining performance from Iwan Davies) are both mischievous and hilarious.
Christopher Oram’s sumptuous set takes us right inside the palace walls, and the costume design, also by Oram along with Tom Rand, are perfection. The floral dresses and colourful hats worn by Wilton are unmistakable in style.
This right royal romp is uproariously funny but also gives a fascinating insight to the inner workings of that famous family. Backstairs Billy is of course a fictionalised account of this particular relationship, but it feels so genuinely authentic you do feel like you’ve spent the evening in the company of a true Queen…and a lady named Elizabeth.