Review by Daz Gale
It’s been a good while since Luke Evans last appeared in the West End, instead becoming a leading man thanks to his star turns in movies such as The Hobbit and Beauty and the Beast . Now he is back on stage in the world premiere of Backstairs Billy alongside Penelope Wilton. Would this star pairing be enough to create a show fit for royalty or would it all go to the dogs?
Backstairs Billy tells the story of the Queen Mother and her loyal servant William Tallon over the course of their 50 year relationship, focusing on a key moment in their time together in 1979, with occasional scenes set in 1952. In the play, Billy describes himself as the other Queen living in Clarence House with all of the action set in the garden room there, focusing on all the comings and goings (sometimes literally) in that one room.
The main draw for this play is, of course, its wonderful cast. Luke Evans has proved himself to be a sensational actor time and time again so to get the opportunity to see his talents on stage for the first time in 15 years. Luke is a revelation in the role of Billy, with a cheeky charm that it is irresistible not to fall in love with. Fantastic characterisation and an exceptional knack for timing make his performance a complete joy to witness.
It’s not all about Luke Evans, however. In her performance as the Queen Mother, Penelope Wilton is absolutely scene-stealing. The larger than life character is a bit of an icon when it comes to the Royal family and Penelope’s portrayal of her is brilliant to witness. Managing to ramp up the comedy for situations that feel within the realms of possibility, this imagined interpretation of what may have happened behind closed doors in the Garden room allows Penelope to be at her comedic best. Her performance is elevated thanks to fantastic chemistry with Luke Evans.
Backstairs Billy isn’t just a two-hander and the other cast have more than their fair share of moments to take the spotlight. Iwan Davies holds his own against the two heavyweight performers with his own glorious character of Gwydion, who we often see the story unfold through his eyes. Ilan Galkoff is a highlight in his brief moments as Young Billy, Eloka Ivo gets a couple of incredibly memorable scenes as Ian, managing to convey serious messages through over the top comedic writing in his character, and Emily Barber is a standout in her dual roles of Annabel Maude and Miffie Astlebury. There are also a couple of adorable cast members in the form of two scene-stealing corgis in what may be the best use of animals in a play since the 7 actors who played the tiger in The Life of Pi.
Written by Marcelo Dos Santos, Backstairs Billy is a perfectly pleasant story with a number of laughs from the offset. At times, it feels like elements have been written just to get an easy audience reaction which can be at a detriment to the quality of the story in itself. While there is nothing wrong with the writing in itself, I didn’t find myself gripped at any point, likening it to the kind of thing you might put on the TV in the background while doing something else at home. Perhaps that is not what you want when going to the theatre, but it is not that this show was particularly good or bad in terms of writing, just very much fine which left me feeling rather indifferent to the whole thing. Perhaps the writing does go off-kilter at the end as the absurdity level ramps up significantly in a short space of time which feels tonally at odds with the rest of the show in a sequence which can only be described as barking mad.
There is a warning as you walk in that the play is set in 1979 so the attitudes and language will represent that. After watching another play this week that seemingly inserted homophobic slurs for nothing more than a cheap laugh, I feared the worst but luckily this was not justified. While attitudes of racism and homophobia are prevalent in Backstairs Billy, they are conveyed in a way that doesn’t belittle the themes or agree with them, with Eloka Ivo’s character brilliantly playing people at their own game by calling them out on their racism without them realising. This was one quality of the writing I appreciated as it would be very easy to cross the line and make the themes playing out quite distasteful.
Michael Grandage’s direction brings the action to life in a static setting without it ever getting boring, thanks to inspired choices involving props and the different ways each character acts in the company of various people in Clarence House, leading to a lot of fun being had. Christopher Oram’s set design is visually pleasing, detailing the intricacies of a single room to perfection, with his and Tom Rand’s costume designs for Penelope Wilton’s Queen Mother excelling. Ryan Day’s lighting design carried with it a clever touch of completely changing the lighting between 1952 and 1979 to represent not just the Queen Mothers varying mood in those years, but also the refurbishment of the house, making the room look far dimmer in 1952.
Backstairs Billy is a perfectly fine show. While the writing can underwhelm at times, never quite knowing what kind of show it wants to be and threatening to break out into full farce without getting there, it still plods along pleasingly, albeit not ground-breakingly. The show is elevated thanks to its spellbinding cast, led by wonderful performances from Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton. While it is undoubtedly not one of the best plays of the year, there is a lot to be said about a show that is nothing more than a harmless bit of fun. With that in mind, Backstairs Billy does the job adequately. This is the show to see if ever you are in need of a right Royal laugh.
Backstairs Billy plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 27th January 2024. Tickets available here.
Photos by Johan Persson