Macelo Dos Santos’s play focusing on a specific moment on the relationship between William “Billy” Tallon and the Queen Mother is filled with laughs, but feels lacking in depth.
With tones of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, Marcelo Dos Santos’s wildly entertaining play really does provide plenty of the laughs that we all need at the moment but equally contains flashes of insight into the politics and prejudice at the time which could have perhaps been explored further.
The majority of the play is set in 1979 at Clarence House and focuses on the central relationship between Billy Tallon (who admired the Queen Mother from childhood when she was Queen) and the Queen Mother, highlighting just how deeply he in particular understood her and her needs. However, Billy is not universally liked as evidenced by his interactions with Mr Kerr (her private secretary), combined with his some reckless behaviour means that he is in danger of losing his position.
What makes this play interesting as well as funny to watch is the clever way in which Dos Santos is subtly able to incorporate deeper themes into his script including politics, class and prejudice to give the script a little bit of an extra bite to it that makes the audience sit up and pay attention. The interactions in particularly between Billy and Mr Kerr are fascinating to watch unfold, dancing around each other – Billy trying to use his charm to keep him at bay , while Mr Kerr subtly tries to undermine him. But this is also reflected well at the opening of the second act in which Ian (as someone who Billy picks up and ends up posing as a prince) handles the snobbery and outdated attitudes of those around him.
Yet on the other side of this, it feels as though these subjects could have been covered in a little more depth to be a touch more thought provoking – although the way in which the Queen Mother takes Billy to task is (although unlikely to be true) unnecessarily shocking and a little bit uncomfortable to watch, adding a sense of cynicism to proceedings and attitude to royalty which up until that point had not been seen. For the most part though, the humour has a real feel of Noel Coward or even Oscar Wilde tone to it (although I’m sure they didn’t refer to dildo’s at any point!) and is a joy to watch unfold – with plenty of good lines not to want to spoil here.
Directed by Michael Grandage, there is a great pace, energy and even poignancy at certain moments which ensure that the audience feel thoroughly invested in seeing what happens to the characters. It is a really spirited production that knows when to keep it light but then flip the mood around as seen in a flashback moment.
The production has a lovely elegance to it that helps to enhance some of the cheekier moments of humour that go down well with audiences. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous and lavish looking set proves to be a perfect setting for everything that unfolds – particularly when a mixture of different classes come into the room (the Queen Mother apparently enjoyed the company of people from different walks of life such as the arts or the racing community). The costume designs by Oram and Tom Rand capture the spirit of the era and the Queen Mother in particular. Everything visually just works in perfect harmony.
It is clear to see from start to finish that the cast truly relish the characters and the script that they are performing here. Luke Evans as Billy in particular has a twinkle in his eye that makes the audience almost complicit in his behaviour at times (including getting a couple of teetotallers to actually drink…), while also offering depth beneath the charm, highlighting how to many (particularly given his job) how he has to hide who he truly is, adding a sadness to it as well. The moment in which the Queen Mother proclaims that she doesn’t think he is happy is a powerful moment.
He is well matched by Penelope Wilton as the Queen Mother, whose sharpness of timing is exquisite during more comical moments – but she is equally as powerful in the moments of loneliness and isolation she feels (Princess Margaret not turning up to see her or the realisation she has lost her role to her daughter).It is a real masterclass of acting. Ian Drysdale as Mr Ker offers strong support as he tries to ensure that everything is done by the rules – but constantly outwitted by Billy. It is an understated performance – but one that really manages to highlight the character’s frustrations well. Iwan Davies as Gwydion adds a joy to proceedings, the character’s innocence and trying to do the right thing is charming as is Ilan Galkoff as the young Billy who is in awe of the Queen Mother when he first joins her household. Eloka Ivo as Ian has plenty to offer, challenging Billy’s attitude and loyalty to the crown and helps to provide some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Perhaps there are certain aspects to the story that could be explored further, but this still remains a fabulous laugh-out-loud experience that actually manages to show how Billy and the Queen Mother had much in common and therein lies the strength of their relationship as employer and employee.
By Emma Clarendon