Tag Archives: Penelope Wilton

“Backstairs Billy” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

It’s hard not to suspect that Marcelo Dos Santos’ play is in the West End because people are interested in Royalty. This fictional account of the Queen Mother and her butler, Billy Tallon, is good. But there isn’t a lot to it. At its best it offers performances to sit back and enjoy: confident, subtle, and making the most of some solid comedy writing.

Charm comes from the characters (not that they are closely, or convincingly, written) who endear and amuse. Billy is gay, so there are two Queens here (ha, ha) with jokes, just a little naughty, about their adventures and attitudes. Not a lot goes on and there’s not much for the performers to convey. But Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans do very well in the lead roles.

The affection Billy and the Queen Mum feel for each is neatly used – both papering over and creating tension. He is long serving but not long-suffering with “the eyes of a religious zealot” when the two first meet (flashback scenes make a strong showcase for Ilan Galkoff who plays a younger Billy).

The Queen Mother is…well…she’s the Queen Mum and gets off very lightly. While plenty of her behaviour is unpleasant the play owes too much to the Royals to really criticise. Meanwhile, Billy is a “boon” to her, especially when we see her as an increasingly lonely old lady. At least his fears of being only “marginalia” in her story is a fate Dos Santos successfully prevents.

When it tries to add bite Backstairs Billy fails. There’s a sitcom moment with Billy’s one night stand, who makes an unwelcome return, that’s successful until politics is brought into the mix. And the power play between the queen and Billy gets nasty and threatens to leave the audience with a sour taste in a clumsy fashion.

Director Michael Grandage keeps the action brisk – necessary in such a static play. Christopher Oram’s set and costume design are accomplished. And there are corgis – real ones! There’s plenty of talent here, and fun moments. But efforts to show changes in British society ring hollow. Backstairs Billy doesn’t give much more than a good giggle.

Until 27 January 2024


Photo by Johan Persson

“A Delicate Balance”at the Almeida Theatre

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is the story of an elderly couple whose twilight years are disturbed by an alcoholic sister-in-law, a daughter’s failed marriage, and their best friends’ nervous breakdowns. A thought-provoking meditation on the duties of family and friendship, as well as an examination of the American dream, this is a fantastic piece of writing that’s ambitiously broad, but so intelligent and challenging that it is always absorbing.

Albee’s observations are inspired. Often more startling than sure-footed, they can jolt an audience to attention. Agnes and Tobias, the elderly couple in whose house we, and all the characters in the play come to stay in, form the focus of observations on age and gender. Agnes fears that she will come “adrift” in senility and claims her husband’s life has been easier than hers – all men have to worry about is “making ends meet until they meet the end”.

Unfortunately, the writing here is far stronger than the production. Albee has created a stifling social world of guarded conversations, full of innuendo, but director James Macdonald does it little justice. Desperation is conveyed too quickly, with no sense of the slide into apathy.

This fault matters less with characters clearly on the edge. Harry and Edna are the best friends who seek refuge due to their inexplicable fear. Diana Hardcastle’s panic is conveyed superbly, likewise her battle to stay and claim the ‘rights’ of her friendship with Agnes. Imelda Staunton plays Clare, the alcoholic sister-in-law, with wit and perspicacity.

Tim Pigott-Smith (Tobias) in A Delicate Balance at the Almeida Theatre. Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Tim Pigott-Smith as Tobias

But the production falters with its central characters and the talented cast never satisfactorily deals with Albee’s articulacy. Penelope Wilton’s Agnes is too magisterial and Tim Pigott-Smith’s Tobias always so close to a breakdown it is hard to imagine him as the conventional man he has always seemed to be.

The skeletons in this family’s closet are so easily exposed you wonder if the wardrobe door was ever closed. Macdonald’s indelicate production destroys Albee’s cleverly constructed rhythm – too much weight is given to calls to activism and not enough to either the humour or humanity of the piece.

Until 2 July 2011


Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 13 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“Hamlet” at Wyndham’s Theatre

A key ingredient to the year long, highly ambitious Donmar in the West End project has been its ‘celebrity’ casting. Younger members of the audience at Jude Law’s Hamlet would certainly feel that the venture has saved the best until last.

It is always great to feel the excitement a star creates in a theatre and heart warming to see the different crowd of people that they attract. But while devoted fans are sure to have a thrilling evening, the rest of us are bound to ask if Law justifies such a charged atmosphere? It is good to report that he does.

Jude Law’s delivery of Shakespearean verse is clear and confident. His stage presence, if not commanding, is conscientious and a real effort is made to engage the whole auditorium. He seems fully aware of the space surrounding him, in a manner many actors working mostly in film frequently forget.

And Law’s engagement with the text genuinely adds something to our understanding of the play. His approach is to show us an angry Hamlet – one of the loudest we might have seen and certainly the most potentially violent. His is not just a brooding and tortured presence but also one who really does seem capable of the play’s bloody ending. Any melancholia has a dangerous edge, which adds drama. Viewers may find this bombast unconvincing, even humourless, but it is a refreshing take on the role.

Unfortunately, Michael Grandage’s production neglects the rest of the cast. So much attention has been focused on Law that other performances appear weak. Kevin R. McNally’s unfrightening Claudius seems to have stumbled on to the throne rather than plotted his way there – we get the impression that the murder of his brother was something that happened by chance. A fine actress, Penelope Wilton sadly makes little of Gertrude. While we can see that she comes to repent her marriage, we cannot fathom her motive for it. In avoiding a Freudian interpretation of the play we are left with a sexless Queen who wears comfy looking trousers. It is difficult to feel anything for her.

One problem might be the speed of this production – commendably, it is just as fast as a thriller and often as gripping. Yet while Hamlet’s soliloquies allow him to take time, the other characters seem rushed. Nobody else in the cast really gets the chance to stand up to Law – it they did then this might have been a great production. As things stand, we simply have a great Hamlet.

Until 22 August 2009

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 7 June 2009 for The London Magazine