Life & Culture

Backstairs Billy review: The Queen Mum's favourite

New play about the class-spanning dynamic between royal aide John Brown and the late monarch's mother aims to be both high comedy and social observation


Backstairs Billy
Duke of York’s Theatre | ★★★✩✩

We have been here before. Billy Connolly and Judi Dench starred in a hit film about the unlikely relationship between Queen Victoria and her trusted servant John Brown. So you might think a new play about a royal and her right-hand man would seem a rehash of well-trodden ground.

In many ways you would be right. In Marcelo Dos Santos’s new take on the class-spanning dynamic Penelope Wilton is supreme as the Queen Mother, imbuing the role of the nation’s former favourite grandmother with vulnerability (as did Dench her Victoria) and also a good deal of warmth and charm.

Her foil is Luke Evans who plays the ramrod straight — in body if not sexuality —William Tallon, aka Backstairs Billy, a Coventry boy for whom working in the royal household was his only escape from his “grey” beginnings.

The discovery that within a top royal there exists an actual human — in this case one that is very fond of tipple — always makes for interesting drama. Except Dos Santos’s play is decidedly less a drama than an out-and-out comedy.

More than that, it tilts exhilaratingly towards farce. There are no slamming doors but there are real corgis who scamper across the stage between scenes.

After it has been established that Billy has licence to do almost as he pleases, the scene is set for a showdown between him and Mr Kerr (Ian Drysdale), the Queen Mother’s Malvolio-like personal secretary.

Though Billy has been in the job 25 years since he was 15, Mr Kerr reminds him that “he will never belong” to the elite.

However, much to Kerr’s frustration, Billy does indeed belong. He has been the Queen
Mother’s undisputed favourite servant since the former Queen consort became a widow, a flashback reveals.

Now, in the late 1970s, when this play is set, Billy regularly lubricates boring tea parties with alcohol in order to make them bearable for his boss and, one suspects, himself. More than that Billy is the antidote to the Queen Mother’s deepening solitude. Visits from her family are rare. No Jewish grandmother, is this.

To fill the gap left by absent family Billy entertains “Mam” (to rhyme with spam) with wicked impersonations of her youngest daughter Margaret — cigarette held aloft —and eldest grandchild, Charles.

Michael Grandage’s production — the latest from the director’s company to premiere new work in the West End — aims to be both high comedy and social observation. It is both but not quite fully either. Too much disbelief is required to be suspended when the repercussions of Billy’s love life crashes one of the tea parties.

Here the excellent Eloka Ivo’s gay, black artist Ian — from riot-riven Brixton, he informs an uninterested room — is a welcome loose cannon, ruffling even Billy’s feathers by his presence.

It is a deliciously tense scene populated by delightfully observed characters. However, the real intruder is Dos Santos’s need to make heavy-handed points about class inequality.
Still, the evening is undoubtedly funny, and for a brief two hours or more is a hugely welcome respite from the anxiety we’re feeling in the real world.

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