The late Queen Mother clearly liked a drink and was a lot of fun.
These two character traits led her into a close dependency with her ‘Page of the Backstairs’, William Tallon.
‘Backstairs Billy,’ as he became known, was a heavy pourer and a serial trickster.
When a dreary party for veterans’ widows was flagging he spiced the teapot with a bottle of whisky. It turned into a rave.
This odd couple had one more thing in common. They both felt a bit ‘spare,’ to use a modern phrase. And were, well, quite lonely.
This aspect is well caught in Marcelo Dos Santos’s delightful new comedy Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Penelope Wilton perfectly portrays the QM’s sense of humour.
As a great actress she also brings out the pathos of being a young widow, suddenly thrust from the cutting edge of national, indeed world affairs.
Hitler described her as “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” and Cecil Beaton as a “marshmallow made with a welding machine.”
Suddenly on her husband’s death she was reduced to flower arranging.
There is a very touching scene, where the newly minted widow in black comes across a young Billy (Ilan Galkoff – one to watch).
A co-dependency of fifty years is born.
The comedy comes as adult Billy (the excellent Luke Evans) starts to sail rather too close to the wind with his gay cruising in Soho.
He invites a large black pick-up (Eloka Ivo) back to Clarence House and much schoolboy humour follows.
There are some touching lines that bring out the extent to which Billy, or indeed other servants such as Gwydion (Iwan Davies), known as ‘Daff’ for obvious reasons, are hiding in the household of a fun and gay-friendly boss.
The set and the costumes are perfect – how often do you see five ‘couturiers’ and a milliner credited for the leading lady.
The closing scene did not quite ring true, but, overall, this dynamic duo shine out in a po-faced age.
Just have a couple of Queen Mother-sized snorters before you go.
Main Picture: Luke Evans (Billy), Penelope Wilton (Queen Mother). Picture Credit: Johan Persson
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