Review: Backstairs Billy


by Mike Matthaiakis

Backstairs Billy” is a captivating and unexpectedly hard-hitting comedy-drama that has made its debut straight into the West End, a testament to the clout of director Michael Grandage and his charity MGCFutures. Set in the late 1970s, the play places the Queen Mother, portrayed by Penelope Wilton, at the forefront, shedding light on her relegation after her bit-part role in ‘The Crown’ and her marginalization within Clarence House.

The narrative revolves around William ‘Billy’ Tallon, played by Luke Evans, who has served the Royal Household since the age of 15 and has spent nearly 30 years as the Steward and Page of the Backstairs for the Queen Mother. The script, written by Marcelo Dos Santos, takes a gleefully subversive approach, making the production more compelling than the ‘joyful comedy’ it is promoted to be. While the play does offer expected elements such as great one-liners, eccentric characters, and corgis, it delves deeper into a harder-edged exploration of the cost-of-living crisis, social unrest, and the incoming Thatcher government.

Dos Santos’s script, coupled with Grandage’s bouncy production, adds layers to the story. Despite the initial appearance of an odd-couple friendship, the play unfolds as a commentary on the intolerance towards Billy’s sexuality. As a gay man in the Queen Mother’s service, Billy’s sexuality is neither acknowledged nor accepted, leading to a one-night stand with an artist, communist, and sex worker named Ian. The ensuing events, involving a humorous yet dark encounter with a penis-shaped sculpture, push the narrative into more profound and humiliating territory, emphasizing the rigid social hierarchy of the time.

Luke Evans brings an archly funny and poignant portrayal to Billy, a devoted Royal Family servant who has unwittingly sacrificed much of his own life. His confrontations with the malevolent Mr. Kerr add depth to the character, showcasing the brittleness of a peacock who remains unaware that his wings have been clipped. The ensemble cast, particularly Emily Barber and Elokoa Ivo, contribute to the play’s humor and complexity.

However, it is Penelope Wilton who steals the show with her portrayal of the Queen Mother. Wilton brings a dazed yet distracted quality to the character, masking papercut cruelty with a benign smile. Her playful rapport with Evans adds nuance to the storyline, but the Queen Mother’s blessing comes with conditions, revealing the intricate power dynamics at play.

“Backstairs Billy” is not a straightforwardly heartwarming story; instead, it navigates through the complexities of relationships, societal expectations, and the harsh realities of the time. The play successfully combines humor with a darker undertone, making it a thought-provoking and memorable production in the West End.

Backstairs Billy” runs at Duke of York’s theatre until 27 January, 2024.