The Royal Family continue to entertain their subjects: Peter Morgan’s The Crown on television, David Seidler’s The King’s Speech on film, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III and Peter Morgan’s The Audience on stage.
Marcelo Dos Santos’s Backstairs Billy is about the close relationship between two queens: Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and William (Billy) Tallon, her openly gay factotum. Billy joined the royal household as a footman at the age of 15 and rose to be Steward and Page of Backstairs.
He was the most devoted of loyal servants. The Queen Mother, widowed when she was 51 years old, is sidelined and lonely. His job, as he saw it, was to keep her smiling. He organised her receptions and her drinks. She relied on him. His role was crucial. The relationship lasted 45 years until her death.
The lead actors are excellent. Luke Evans has Billy’s flamboyance, arrogance and humour. He is extremely likeable. Penelope Wilton has the Queen Mother’s authority and wit.
Billy was careful not to cross the line but he did take liberties. He invited rent boys into Clarence House. This leads to a farcical scene, which is too farcical to be remotely believable. The rent boy (Eloka Ivo), who is also a sculptor (who specialises in enormous black phalluses) pretends to be an African prince and is accepted as such.
We suddenly seem to be in a different sort of play. So too when the Queen Mother, degradingly, forces Billy to clean up the corgi’s excrement on the carpet with his bare hands. It is a brutal reminder of his servility.
Michael Grandage directs an elegant and enjoyable production which takes royalty and the courtiers more seriously than the grovelling commoners who are caricatured.
There is a beautiful set by Christopher Oram, who recreates the garden room in Clarence House. The cast includes two corgis. No play about the royal family would be complete without corgis.
Backstairs Billy, frivolous and serious, is a witty period piece and its old-fashionedness is part of its charm and appeal. The scene with the 15-year-old working-class Billy (Ilan Gilkoff) meeting the Queen Mother for the first time, perfectly judged, is particularly affecting.
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