‘Backstairs Billy’ play review: Penelope Wilton wows as the Queen Mother

A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first ever opening night at the Duke of York’s theatre in London in order to see Backstairs Billy.

The brand-new comedy production is based on the close 45-year friendship between the Queen Mother and her trusty butler-turned-Page of the Backstairs William Tallon (aka the titular Backstairs Billy).

The main characters are played respectively by the renowned Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) and the dashing Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast, The Hobbit).

The exquisitely decorated and welcoming Garden Room set was nothing short of gorgeous, with magnificent French windows that you could not help but imagine led directly on to sunlit grounds, carefully situated vases complete with blooming roses and sweet peas, fabulous Renaissance-style paintings, a smart sideboard complete with drinks tray and the sweetest pair of live corgis that scampered eagerly across the stage, to adoring gasps of delight from the audience.

The play hovered beautifully between poignancy and humour, with crafty flirt Billy spiking the teetotal guests’ cordial and causing them to perform would-be cowboy accents on the one hand, while on the other being sincerely loyal and kind in his devotion to the Queen Mother, who had often secretly suffered from loneliness over the years, ever since the death of her beloved husband Bertie.

Set in 1979, the play shows Billy soothing the Queen Mother’s frustration over the sorry state of her boiled eggs (the final straw after a family breakfast invitation falls flat at the last minute), presenting her evening’s magazines to her with irresistible flair and enticing her to select just one more tempting chocolate from the proffered box.

He is always ready to defend her honour to others and forever willing to have one more dance around the room with her for old time’s sake, just as they did on that first night when he was 15 years old, when she cheerfully persuaded him to dress up in her elaborate pendant and tiara after her disappointing royal evening out.

Billy’s often contradictory determination to remain dedicated to his duties and at the same time bend the rules is often tested throughout the play; his devil-may-care antics and rebellious spirit mean that he is forever dangerously testing the limits.  Yet for most of the first act he is seemingly able to keep one step ahead of his disapproving nemesis of a Private Secretary, as well as cause the hapless young footman Gwydion to have serious second thoughts about his new position before his first week is out.

Ultimately, one cannot help but marvel at the bonds of friendship and loyalty that first developed out of mutual kindness, understanding and respect between these two unlikely companions over the years.

It is to be hoped that Billy will continue to be deserving of Her Majesty’s faith throughout the play, as well as succeed in locating her beach towel in time.

Reviewed by Ann Philippas.