Marcelo Dos Santos’s ‘Backstairs Billy’ is that rare thing: a new play that’s debuted straight into the West End (as opposed to transferred in from somewhere smaller). It’s thanks to the clout of its director, Michael Grandage, and his charity MGCFutures, which supports the next generation of creatives.
Set in the late 1970s, it puts the Queen Mother centre stage – following her relegation to bit-part player in ‘The Crown’ – and then focuses on how sidelined she is in Clarence House.
The Billy of the title is William ‘Billy’ Tallon (Luke Evans), who joined the Royal Household aged 15, then moved to Clarence House with the Queen Mother (Penelope Wilton) after the death of her husband, King George VI. When we meet him, he’s been in her service for nearly 30 years and is now Steward and Page of the Backstairs – earning the tabloid nickname ‘Backstairs Billy’.
There’s something gleefully subversive about Dos Santos’s script and Grandage’s bouncy production, which makes it compelling. It’s harder-edged than the simple, ‘joyful comedy’ about an odd-couple friendship that it’s promoted as in the accompanying blurb. Sure, at one level, it does what you might expect from the glut of royal rehabilitation stories we’ve seen on TV and film. It has some great one-liners, gives us a roll call of colourfully eccentric or over-privileged people to laugh at… and there are actual corgis.
But there’s a cost-of-living crisis rumbling outside, rioting and an incoming Thatcher government. And Billy’s sexuality – he’s gay – is not so much tolerated by the Queen Mother, as treated as non-existent. The events that lead to his one-night stand – artist, communist and sex worker Ian (Elokoa Ivo) – pretending to be an African prince while the Queen Mother holds his penis-shaped Black Dawn sculpture have the hallmarks of a drawing-room farce. The consequences, however, move into darker, more humiliating territory. In this world, you must never forget your place.
As Billy, Evans is archly funny; a Royal Family devotee who has hollowed out his own life in service. He relishes his confrontations with the malevolent Mr Kerr (Ian Drysdale), who has come to rein in Clarence House’s expenditure. But in Evans’s gait is the showiness of a peacock who doesn’t know its wings have been clipped – a brittleness that shows he needs the rarified air of the fantasy of royal life as much as the Queen Mother but has none of her security.
The rest of the ensemble cast are fun as the visitors, particularly Emily Barber as a soap actress and a posho named Lady Miffie. Ivo brings a wry spikiness to the pantomime of afternoon tea at Clarence House. But it’s Wilton who owns the stage. She brings a dazed, distracted quality to the Queen Mother that acts as a smokescreen for papercut cruelty delivered with a benign smile. She and Evans establish a playful rapport. But this isn’t a straightforwardly heartwarming story – Billy is as much a plaything as anything. The Queen Mother’s blessing comes with conditions.