Review - Backstairs Billy - Duke of York's Theatre, London

Backstairs Billy - Duke of York's Theatre, London

As a child of the eighties, my impression of the Queen Mother is probably overshadowed by the Spitting Image caricature - constantly declaring her age to anyone who’ll listen whilst quaffing countless Dubonnet’s.

In Marcelo Dos Santo’s new play, it’s a more subdued Elizabeth we see (played with great tenderness and poise by the wonderful Penelope Wilton).

Under the direction of Michael Grandage and with a superb set by Christopher Oram that recreates Clarence House at The Duke of York’s Theatre, Backstairs Billy tells the true story of the relationship between the Queen Mother and her loyal servant William ‘Billy’ Tallon (in a great performance from Luke Evans).

The story unfolds against the backdrop of the late seventies - industrial unrest, Thatcher’s rise to power and rioting, however the gentle humour almost negates any effort at social commentary, likewise Billy’s homosexual relationships are never really clear if they’re intended to show Elizabeth as forward thinking, accepting or simply turning a blind eye.

Echoing the protocol of the royal family themselves, the tone of the play remains someone muted, the humour aiming for a wry smile or chuckle rather than a belly laugh, the more sombre moments aren’t dwelt on or are brushed away.

At times, the play feels more like an episode of a series that tells the backstory of the characters but without the more gripping drama of previous or subsequent episodes, a slow burner that never really catches fire.

The saving grace is the wonderful performances from the entire cast alongside Wilton and Evans. Backstairs Billy is a nice, somewhat genteel nostalgia piece and I can certainly think of worse company to spend the evening with than the late Queen Mother.

This show was reviewed on the 7th November 2023.  Backstairs Billy runs at The Duke of York's Theatre, London until the 27th Januar 2024.  Tickets available here: Backstairs Billy (

*** stars

Mike Stocks

Join Mike every Monday from 9am for 'The Best of Stage and Screen' here on Box Office Radio


Photo credit: Johan Persson