If you’re looking for light entertainment with a bit of royal glamour this winter, Backstairs Billy has you covered. The new comedy written by Marcelo Dos Santos paints the picture of an unusual friendship in bright aquarelles. A little too colourful, perhaps, but nice to look at, nonetheless.

Credit: Johan Persson

Billy dances on a tightrope like a circus clown, he balances between a queer life that was still not accepted in the late 70s and the strict protocol of Her Majesty’s House. Since the age of 15, he has been in the service of the former Queen Elizabeth – now known as The Queen Mother – and admires her so much that he even follows her to Clarence House after her husband’s death. He stands by her when she is lonely and sidelined by her family. An unusual friendship develops, and we get permitted a peek in at a crossroads. Billy has been in the service of the Queen Mother for 25 years now, and has worked his way up to the prestigious post of ‘Page of the Back Stairs’. He clearly enjoys his position in Her Majesty’s esteem but must be careful of envious people and almost brings himself down with his nonchalant manner.

Dos Santo’s script is as light-footed as the dance of its two main characters. It flows gently and has very humorous taunts. Occasionally it becomes clear that we are only seeing part of the truth and that the power imbalance is much greater than it seems. However, this side of the story is not examined too extensively. The opportunity to become more politically profound is also missed. Both Margaret Thatcher’s immediate ascend and the South London riots in the late 1970s are touched upon but not pursued. It’s a shame, really. But if we’re honest, Backstairs Billy doesn’t claim to be a profound piece to begin with, on the contrary, some low-hanging laughter is cashed in on right from the start with excessive drinking behaviour (although I would also find it unpatriotic if people didn’t have champagne with me if I were Queen) and the word “hung”.

Credit: Johan Persson

For me, that doesn’t detract from the quality of the piece. On the contrary, I felt entertained and laughed heartily even at the more intelligent jokes. Luke Evans as William “Billy” Tallon and Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother display a wonderful dynamic and complement each other fabulously.

“I froze time for her!” is probably one of my favourite moments. It is the finesse with which Evans delivers his short monologue on what he’d done for the Queen throughout the years to the new footman Gwideon (Iwan Davies) that suggests his striving to maintain a world full of glamour and to find royalty in the most everyday things is just as important to his survival as it is to the well-being of the Dowager Queen. He is a bird of paradise in a golden cage who has created his own reality and perhaps lost touch with the outside world in the process. Evans balances a fine line between big gestures and subtle nuances that, despite all the humour, give the bird of paradise enough depth to not let it become boring.

Wilton’s Queen Mother is a great portrait of a woman who had a purpose all her life and who seeks stability in it even when her peak has long passed. We see a charming old lady one minute, then an unimpressed Queen, and finally a broken woman who seems forgotten by her family. Heartbreaking, bordering on senility and old age, and yet with endearing quirks. I loved every minute of her stage presence.

Backstairs Billy really is a great play for a light evening. Something for the heart and soul without being overwhelming or too challenging. You can catch it at the Duke of York’s Theatre until the 27th of January 2024.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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