Picture the scene: against a backdrop of political turmoil, a cost of living crisis and constant public sector strikes, we find ourselves – perhaps surprisingly not in the present day – but instead in 1979, with the UK about to elect its first female prime minister in what will eventually prove to be a seismic shift in British politics. Inside Clarence House, however, it’s business as usual; The Queen Mother (Penelope Wilton) is entertaining the usual quirky parade of guests, ably supported by her favourite page Billy (Luke Evans).
Backstairs Billy presents an interesting story based on the life of William ‘Billy’ Tallon, who was one of the Queen Mother’s servants for some 50 years. We are afforded a snapshot into his life at a moment time, alongside flashbacks to him as a teenager when he is first employed by the royal household. We also meet Ian, one of his lovers, an artist who brings with him a taste for somewhat phallic sculpture.
Our leading pair bring two wonderful performances to the stage: Penelope Wilton is effortlessly charming and witty, but it’s very much not a surface-level performance – her sadness at the loss of power and relevance, and her disdain for the family that has sidelined her, is palpable. Luke Evans, meanwhile, exudes an endearing charm, with impeccable manners and expert timing. Again, there’s nuance to his performance, too – for all his posturing and bravado we do see glimpses of insecurity underneath the surface.
While there are many enjoyable elements, this camp comedy is rather frivolous and frothy – it’s very much theatre as light entertainment. We have plenty of amusing one-liners and enjoyable acting performances, we have an opulent set with some nicely-choreographed flower arranging set-pieces – we even have actual corgis on-stage! – but it’s not pushing any boundaries, nor is it going to particularly wow its audience. Backstairs Billy offers up a couple of hours of easy entertainment – and while sometimes that’s enough, it’s hardly the most essential viewing on the West End right now.
GAY TIMES gives Backstairs Billy – 3/5
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