Was Tallon really making such a mockery at Clarence House? Doubt it, but it’s likely he and the Queen Mother were conspiratorial in their love of a stiff drink and a good party, and that during the course of his 40 years’ service as her footman-cum-page-of-the-backstairs, he became one of her closest confidants.
The Queen Mother was aware of Tallon’s sexuality, and her before-its-time acceptance is playfully referenced in Santos’s quip-rich script. The well-shared anecdote of her referring to Tallon and another member of her waiting staff as 'two old queens' gets a mention.
Luke Evans (Billy) and Penelope Wilton (Queen Mother). Photo: Johan Persson
Backstairs Billy unfolds entirely in designer Christopher Oram’s imagining of the Garden Room at Clarence House, a high-ceilinged, lavishly decorated space with plush pink walls, a glittering chandelier and still-lifes of flowers hanging above their physical embodiments. A pair of real-life corgis add to the flourishes, running from one door to another on demand (though one proved tricky to settle on press night).
Michael Grandage’s production neatly splices scenes of a present-day Tallon (a flamboyant, theatrical and predatory Luke Evans), schooling a younger steward on palace etiquette while sniffing out his interest in a fling, with those of a fresh-faced Tallon (Ilan Galkoff), eager to please in his early days of service for Her Majesty, aged just 15.
Penelope Wilton holds us captive as the Queen Mother, even if there's a lack of regal poise to her performance.
Through a heartwarming scene in which the two cement their bond, Santos suggests Tallon came along at just the right moment for the Queen Mother, who was grieving the death of her husband King George VI, while feeling abandoned by the younger generation of busy core royals.
Luke Evans (Billy) and Eloka Ivo (Ian). Photo: Johan Persson
There’s a problem, though: set in 1979, Santos’s play is pitched as a collision between the bubble of Clarence House and the strikes unfolding outside it as part of the winter of discontent. Such a coming-together would have been topical in light of this year’s public sector strikes, but they’re sidelined to two brief scenes and voiced exclusively by artist Ian (a show-stealing Eloka Ivo). It’s barely a glimpse of the outside world, really.
The shocking final scene, in which The Queen Mother reminds Tallon who’s in charge following his misdeeds, is a strange note to end on for a play that, for the most part, runs like a touching homage to the relationship between the two.
Still, on the whole it’s very funny and likely to tickle even the most reluctant royalists in the audience.
|What||Backstairs Billy, Duke of York's Theatre review|
|Where||Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4BG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
27 Oct 23 – 27 Jan 24, 7:30 PM – 9:45 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|