curtain call

Luke Evans enjoys a royal romp as a gay footman in this world premiere play

Luke Evans in Backstairs Billy
Luke Evans in “Backstairs Billy.” (Photo: Johan Persson)

The Rundown

There has been much excitement around the arrival of Backstairs Billy at London’s historic Duke Of York’s Theater. Starring out actor Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton (Downtown Abbey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it focuses on the relationship between the late Queen Mother and her long-serving footman, William ‘Billy’ Tallon.

Tallon began working for the Queen Mother in 1952, following the passing of her husband, the late King George VI (father to the late Queen Elizabeth). He was just 15 and stayed in her service until 2002, when she too, passed.

Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy
Penelope Wilton in “Backstairs Billy.” (Photo: Johan Persson)

A gay man, Tallon’s reputation as being the Queen Mother’s confidant and faithful companion was well-known in society circles and among tabloid hacks.

The comedy marks the first return to the stage by Luke Evans in 16 years. It also marks a third gay role for the actor, swiftly following his recent pairing with Billy Porter in the movie Our Son and his role in the 2021 Hulu series Nine Perfect Strangers.

Backstairs Billy comes from award-winning writer Marcelo Dos Santos. It’s directed by veteran opera and West End director Michael Grandage (who also helmed Harry Styles’ recent movie, My Policeman).

No Tea, No Shade

No tea? Well, as you may imagine, for a play set in one of the royal households, tea is definitely on the menu … washed down with plenty of gin, whisky, and champagne. Both Billy and the Queen Mother are fond of drink, and much of the action centers around the daily teas and lunches that the royal throws for her random guests.

After her husband’s passing and the ascension of her daughter, Elizabeth, to the throne, the Queen Mother relocates to Clarence House. The action is set within the confines of one drawing room, although it zips back and forth in time occasionally to show a young Billy’s (Ilan Galkoff) entrance into her life.

Ilan Galkoff in "Backstairs Billy.'
Ilan Galkoff in “Backstairs Billy.” (Photo: Johan Persson)

The first half of the play establishes Billy’s role within the household and his fractious relationship with the matriarch’s private secretary, Mr. Kerr. The latter sees Billy as a bad influence on the elderly Royal and believes the household needs to cut costs.

“The whole country is on its knees,” Kerr complains to the footman in reference to strikes crippling the country in the late 1970s.

“There are worse places to be,” quips Billy. “I hear there’s a hung Parliament.”

The camp banter continues for the arrival of Wilton to the stage and the hosting of a tea party. It’s all rather Noel Cowardish and “drawing room farce” in tone (much like Broadway’s recent production of The Cottage starring Will & Grace‘s Erik McCormick). Like the Queen Mother’s own household, the play harkens back to another era. By the arrival of intermission, audiences might be left craving for a little more drama.

Thankfully, that arrives in Act II. Billy picks up a young Black artist, Ian (Eloka Ivo), while out one night and brings him back for an illicit tryst in the Queen Mother’s home. Billy assumes Ian will be impressed by the surroundings. He’s more amused, however, by Billy’s own awe of the royal household, which he views as an anachronism in changing times.

A staff member discovers the two men, and Ian flees. As gossip about Billy’s scandalous behavior swirls around the household, he finds his position at risk.

Luke Evans and Eloka Ivo in Backstairs Billy
Luke Evans and Eloka Ivo in “Backstairs Billy.” (Photo: Johan Persson)

Let’s Have a Moment

Ian returns to Clarence House to retrieve an item he left behind. Arriving just before yet another tea party, Ian gets roped into the action, with Billy pretending he’s a visiting African prince.

The confusion and subsequent comedy around Ian’s ethnicity is where the farce may well come off the rails for some. On the one hand, Ian discusses making art to address the fetishization of Black men, so the play possesses an awareness of current debates around race and queerness. But the debate feels somewhat shoe-horned into a piece set in 1979, at a time when British TV had only recently stopped airing the now-shocking Black And White Minstrel Show.

Ian, of course, is a metaphor. The Queen Mother was the last ‘Empress of India,’ and she laments the loss of other British colonies such as Kenya. Ian represents the future, laughing at the former colonizers and their silly ways. But still, how it’s handled here will divide opinion.

Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in Backstairs Billy
Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton in “Backstairs Billy.” (Photo: Johan Persson)

The Last Word

Both Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans shine in their roles. A scene towards the end, where Billy is harshly reminded of where he lies in the household pecking order, shows a welcome, darker edge.

Kudos also to Ivo as Ian. He made an impression earlier this year in BLACK SUPERHERO at the Old Vic and deserves wider attention.

Performances aside, it’s hard to escape the feeling that skimpy source material has been stretched out to create a frothy, comic concoction. Yes, the Queen Mother had a long-serving gay footman, but one assumes he was privy to far more secrets and salacious gossip than what’s presented in Backstairs Billy

Dos Santos himself concedes he had to largely make the story up, telling London Theatre Direct last month, “The play is very much a comic imagining of their relationship and their ‘court.’ In fact, it was only when I really allowed myself space to imagine and play that it started to come alive as a piece of theatre.”


Backstage Billy delivers plenty of laughs and moves at a brisk pace, but some of its fictionalization is cringe-worthy. There’s also one glaring omission: The real William Tallon reportedly enjoyed a 30-year relationship with another male member of the staff, Reginald Wilcock. That’s surely notable at a time when it was much harder to be gay. Sadly, there’s zero mention of it here.

Backstairs Billy plays at London’s Duke of York’s Theater through January 27, 2024.

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