Backstairs Billy @ Duke of York’s Theatre, London


Royal life as cheeky farce…with real Corgis. What is not to love?! And the Queen Mum! with real life National Treasures Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans. In Marcelo Dos Santos’ play, we move backwards and forwards in time through Elizabeth, Mother of the Queen’s life, and through her friendship with her cheeky and most loyal servant, William ‘Billy’ Fallon.

Figaro-style, Luke Evans’s Backstairs Billy is both suave, charming, fervently royalist and eager to please; but also about his own business by his own rules, to the detriment of the reputation of his mistress, the Queen Mum. Still trying to work out what to do as a former Queen and how to live life, Penelope Wilton’s Queen Mum gets wheeled out to cut the occasional ceremonial ribbon, and in a royal cost-cutting exercise, to rounds of dull and bizarre guests wheeled in to amuse her, with tea. The guests are given boxes of bon mots (or items designed to spark communication if they lose the ability to speak in the presence of royalty). Meanwhile, Billy does his best to cheer her — anticipating what she needs before she even knows that she needs it and livening up the dull guests by lacing their cordial with alcohol! Both Billy and Queen Mum are encountering trying times in 1979, with ongoing strikes, restrictions to the aristocratic and fun country house life the Queen Mum wants to lead, protests against racism and Margaret Thatcher rising to power. Both are similarly living constrained lives. Plus the Queen Mum makes like an ostrich and sticks her head in the sand to anything too distressing. At the same time she is intensely curious and wants to be meet and be around people — instead she feels overwhelmed, in the way, unwanted, uninvited and frequently bored, frustrated and irrelevant.

We get to experience the strange goldfish bowl-like world of Clarence House, with lots of privilege, but also a busy family who do not visit much, where the kitchen can’t produce a decent boiled egg to suit your taste, and where your trusted servant is smuggling lovers into your sitting room and engaging in risky behaviours. In a sense, the royal household is a kind of stage and the Queen Mum and Backstairs Billy go full throttle into it, certainly not as mere players. At the same time Kerr (Ian Drysdale) keeps account, watches and seeks to quash royal fun aka spending and get rid of Billy’s ‘bad’ influence once and for all.

Tremendously funny, a farce develops as bon mot boxes are muddled and a new footman Gwydion (Iwan Davies) becomes a spy for Kerr and starts to casually blackmail Billy. Then there is Billy’s latest lover Ian (Eloka Ivo), who charms his way in to a royal reception by pretending to be Billy’s cousin and royalty, and has misplaced his latest art work in the ‘palace’. It’s all very ‘Allo ‘Allo at this point. Even so the Queen Mum is made of sterner stuff and reasserts order, getting everyone back into line and in their proper place — with surprising results. If you love a good cheeky laugh, then this show is for you!

Particularly charming was ‘Young Billy’ (Ilan Galkoff) in flashbacks, who dared to talk to the then bereaved Queen Mum as an equal, though respectfully in a Coventry accent and as an ardent royalist fan. Equally charmed, she dressed him up in her finery and taught him to dance — they amuse each other in the strange world they live in! Although like the discreet and refined world they inhabit, with its complexity of social niceties, it’s hard to know how much of the play is real when Billy’s real-life partner, Reginald Wilcock, has been completely erased from proceedings. Long-term partnerships and fidelity whilst working for the same refined employer make for less farcical elements? Could have been a much more complex and nuanced piece; instead once the farce is over, we get a ‘voice-over’ as the playwright seems unsure about how to finish. Maybe we have been given what we expect, rather than something with a bit more challenge — although we were very much entertained!

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!