Backstairs Billy juggles comedy with a critique on power and privilege

It’s corgis a go-go in Marcelo Dos Santos’ enjoyable play about the relationship between the Queen Mother (Penelope Wilton) and her backstairs page Billy (Luke Evans). He served her from the age of 15 until her death.

The dogs hurtle across the stage at the opening and hurtle back in the second half. One sits yawning on Wilton’s lap during a long monologue before delivering a little parcel on the carpet. Everyone’s a critic. It is precisely at this point that Dos Santos’ play shifts from amiable comedy to something more scathing.

Billy has privileges above and beyond most of the Clarence House staff and occasionally abuses them, secure in the belief that Ma’am will turn a blind eye to his infractions. Lacing teetotal visitors’ lime juice with vodka is one thing, inviting a gay artist (Eloka Ivo) back for sex is quite another.

Director Michael Grandage maintains a delicate balance between socially vacuum-packed royalty and those who serve them, and Wilton and Evans’ easy chemistry is palpably mischievous.

The disapproval of HM’s personal secretary (Ian Drysdale) over Billy’s indiscretions and the page’s resulting humiliation reveal the insidious purpose of the play in a scene that should be chilling in its depiction of power and privilege. Alas, it comes too late and leaves a sour taste even if, for much of its length, we are amused.


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