Tuesday 21 November 2023

Theatre review: Backstairs Billy

The Michael Grandage Company returns to the West End for a light comedy whose more serious intentions never quite cohere: Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos (so named because he's currently got dos shows on in London) is based on real people, and capitalises on the ever-popular conceit of imagining what the Royal Family get up to behind closed doors. In this case it's one of the most beloved members throughout the 20th century, popular prequel Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Penelope Wilton may not seem obvious casting, but I've seen her play Bernarda Alba before so I know she can embody evil. One person who bought into her saintly image from a young age was William Tallon (Luke Evans,) a bouffant hairdo with footman attachment, who by 1979 has reached the senior position of Page of the Back Stairs.

Although never dropping the formality in front of QE 1.5, Billy's closeness to her means he takes a lot of liberties in his work: Part of his popularity with her may be because he enables the boozy afternoon tea parties she's become notorious for, spiking the drinks of teetotal guests she finds boring.

He also takes advantage for his own purposes, flirting openly with the new young footman (Iwan Davies,) antagonising private secretary Mr Kerr (Ian Drysdale) in his attempts to cut costs, and bringing young men back to Clarence House to impress and seduce. Dos Santos' story hinges on one such pick-up, Ian (Eloka Ivo,) an artist and occasional rent-boy who makes sculptures about the fetishisation of black cock (while Billy is, certainly from a 21st century vantage point, oblivious to quite how casually he himself is fetishising Ian.)

This leads to the play's biggest venture into farce as, to avoid being caught with a hookup in the Royal sitting room, Billy ends up passing Ian off as a visiting African Prince, while the collection of other eccentric guests deal with the appearance of a massive black dildo the artist has mislaid. Is it me, or are a lot of new comedies dipping their toe into farcical elements without completely structuring their story as a farce? I can understand if writers don’t want to go the whole hog of people running in and out of doorways and trousers falling down, lest they be accused of working in a horribly outdated medium; but love it or hate it, I feel like farce is something you either have to commit to or not. Grandage’s production never really goes wild with farcical chaos, and doesn’t feel like it wants to.

Or maybe this element of the play feels like half-measures because so much else in it does too: The overall intention is certainly light-hearted, but setting the story in 1979 is a nod to a turbulent period of social injustice, protest, and the shadow of the upcoming Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher. (In a play featuring a number of gay characters there’s only a couple of very oblique bits of foreshadowing of the AIDS pandemic, and I can’t even be 100% sure they were deliberate.) Ian is treated as a bit of a fun distraction by all the white people in the room until he fully realises the position he’s been put in and speaks up about the recent race protests and police brutality. Ivo handles the tonal shift well but I’m not sure Dos Santos and Grandage entirely convince us this all belongs in the same play.

There’s also a bit of treading carefully around the Queen Your Mum herself, understandably as she’s still held in such high regard by many, but again making it feel like there’s a fuzziness around the play’s intentions. The most sympathy for her comes in flashback scenes to her meeting a 15-year-old Billy (Ilan Galkoff) when he first entered her service, just after she got moved to Clarence House. The idea is that, put out to pasture much younger than expected by her husband’s early death and her daughter’s promotion, she feels like a lonely spare part until Billy makes her the centre of his world. On the other hand as she sits in her gaudy pink room, overdecorated with real and painted flowers (designer Christopher Oram’s always liked high doors and windows so this must have been a treat for him) whining that her gin rations might be slightly cut to save costs while paying lip service to her subjects in real hardship, there’s a glimpse of something a bit more critical.

As for the play’s climax, and the things Billy has to do for her to forgive his mistakes (after she’s treated herself to a self-congratulatory “I love the gays me, they’re all nice and poofy aren’t they?” speech about how tolerant she is,) it’s another one where I’m not quite sure what the intention was – I found it incredibly dark but I don’t know if I was meant to. Still, the show's generally enjoyable if not often laugh-out-loud funny, Wilton is a joy to watch as ever, and she and Evans are backed up by some comic supporting turns from Emily Barber, Michael Simkins and Nicole Sloane as various sozzled party guests. Not that anyone will remember any of them - the show has real corgis running around the stage, human actors can't compete with that.

Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos is booking until the 27th of January at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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