Michael Grandage will direct Wilton as the Queen Mother, with Evans playing her most loyal servant, in new play Backstairs Billy this autumn
A joyous story’ … Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans will star in Backstairs Billy by Marcelo Dos Santos at the Duke of York’s theatre in London. Composite: Getty
Luke Evans will return to the West End this autumn to star alongside Penelope Wilton in a new play about the Queen Mother’s relationship with her most loyal servant.
Evans, whose films include Fast & Furious 6 and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, has not performed on stage in more than a decade. The Welsh actor is now set to play William Tallon in Marcelo Dos Santos’s comedy Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s theatre in London.
Set in 1979, against the backdrop of civil unrest, the play examines the relationship between the Queen Mother and Tallon, who served the royal household for over half a century.
“When I read the script, it made me giggle out loud so hard,” said Evans. “It’s just so entertaining and such a joyous story about these two people: the Queen Mother, who was super famous, but also Billy. He was always there and spent most of his life working for her.”
The Queen Mother with her pet corgi and butler William Tallon ‘backstairs Billy’on her 99th Birthday. Photograph: Michael Crabtree/PA
Evans, 44, “started on the West End stage”, he said. “I left it and now feels like the right time to come back in this new comedy, which is written so beautifully. I’ve gone through all the emotions, all the feels of excitement, trepidation, nerves, doubt and then thinking, you know what, this was my world from the second I graduated [from London Studio Centre in 2000] and I loved it. I can’t wait to get stuck into rehearsals.”
Wilton described Backstairs Billy, which features a company of 12, as “a joyful and compassionate play. It brings the Queen Mother into Technicolor rather than being a pastel person in pale chiffon. She suddenly becomes a very vibrant person and we see her for herself, not just for being the Queen’s mother. Billy allowed her to be who she was.”
She stressed that, despite being a comedy, the play is by no means a “send-up”. It is “a celebration of the Queen Mother, who has been rather sidelined”, Wilton said, adding: “It’s very nice to be in on the birth of a new comedy because there aren’t that many around. This is a new comedy voice. [Dos Santos] has a mixture of Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn and – dare I say – Noël Coward.” Dos Santos’s plays include Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen, a solo show about a comedian played by Samuel Barnett, which opened at the Edinburgh fringe last summer and will run at the Bush theatre from November.
Backstairs Billy will be directed by Michael Grandage who met the Queen Mother and Tallon while attending a reception in 1997. “There was very much a hierarchy in place in that one was serving the other but there was an incredible respect and depth of something going on, where you knew each was reliant on the other in some way,” he remembered. “It really was like watching a double act.”
Backstairs Billy runs at the Duke of York’s theatre from 27 October until 27 January.