Interview: actress Emily Barber talks stage and screen, as she stars in new theatre show Backstairs Billy

As Backstairs Billy opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, we chat with Emily about taking to the stage with Penelope Wilton and Luke Evans, the Royal Family, and discovering the Queen Mother’s party-loving personality

Emily Barber, image credit: The Other Richard @ _otherrichard
Styling: Bertie Taylor-Smith @bertie_ts / Hair and Make-up: Jade Bird @jadebirdmakeup

Can you tell us a little more about Backstairs Billy, what attracted you to the play?
Director Michael Grandage is someone I’ve dreamed of working with since I was at drama school. He’s known as being an actor’s director; I now understand what that means! Being in the room with him, he is just a joy to work with and really cares. It’s a fun experience and the play is incredibly naughty, hilarious and joyous to be in. 

Can you tell us more about the story?
It’s about the relationship between the Queen Mother and her page, Billy. He was her loyal servant for fifty years and it’s a fictional comic telling of what it would have been like inside Clarence House. 

It’s set over a weekend in ‘79, so a really interesting part of history because Thatcher is about to be elected. There’s a lot going on outside the walls of Clarence House but actually inside it’s just kind of ‘Champagne!’. It seems like lots of fun, lots of parties. 

Do you think the portrayal is true to life?
Mercelo Dos Santos, the playwright, has done a huge amount of research and Michael Grandage did meet William Tallon; he was around the theatre scene, so a lot of it is quite accurate. There’s also lots of stories in the documentary [about William Tallon]; socialites talking about how they loved partying with her and the corgis! 

Were you familiar with the story of the Queen Mother and Billy before you took the role?
No, I had never heard of Backstairs Billy. I couldn’t believe he was a real person! I do love the Royal stories and the Queen Mother is someone we don’t know a huge amount about, but who had a huge amount of personality, this wicked sense of humour, and love for theatre. She was a really impressive woman.

There’s been a renewed interest in the Royal Family on screen recently, why do you think that is?
We’re still fascinated! The Crown obviously got everybody very invested in them but maybe we’ll always have a fascination with them. It’s a world that we somehow can’t quite understand. This play definitely brings out the kind of the campness and wonderfulness of the Royal world and tradition.

Can you tell us a little more about your character?
I play one character in the first half – this sitcom actress who is the star of one of Her Majesty’s favourite TV shows – and in the second half I’m playing Lady Astlebury, who is a socialite of the time. 

How do you switch between two roles in such a short space of time? Can you tell us more about the process?
The setting of both halves is similar; a champagne reception. It’s written so well that they are clearly different, from different classes, and it’s to do with how they approach the situation. The actress, despite being confident and a performer, feels incredibly insecure and nervous and terrified within the royal setting. Whereas the socialite is an upper class person, she understands that world a lot more. 

A lot of it has to do with voice, once you’ve got that and their physicality you can fly. One of them is incredibly posh and one of them is from more humble beginnings but actually puts on voices depending on who she’s with. That’s a really interesting thing to be playing with. 

Luke Evans and Emily Barber in Backstairs Billy, credit: Johan Persson

One of your co-stars in the play is Luke Evans who you worked with before on The Alienist. Has it been different working with him on a stage performance?
Yes, it was such a weird coincidence. I played his fiancé in a series called The Alienist. It was set in the Victorian era in 1890s New York and now we’re in a Royal household!

We were thrown into scenes in ridiculous costumes [filming] in Budapest. I got to know him really well and, actually, when I read this play he was the first person that came to my mind, which is fascinating. Once I found out I was like, I should be a casting director! He is perfect for the role and it’s been really lovely being in the room with him.

He’s not done a play for 15 years, he’s not actually done a – I think he did a musical fifteen years ago – so this is a whole new experience, it’s nice seeing that side of him. He’s nervous and excited and that’s a really lovely thing to be around. He’s working really hard and loving it.

You’re also starring alongside Penelope Wilton. What’s it been like working with her?
I feel like we’re treating her like she’s the Queen Mother! We’re quite scared of her and because she’s so graceful and charming, you can’t you can’t help but treat her like she’s royalty. She’s also a Dame and she’s someone I’ve always admired. I’m playing characters that kind of worship the Queen Mother, so it doesn’t feel weird to have a similar relationship outside of the play. She’s just the loveliest woman. 

Backstairs Billy is your current project but you’re also an accomplished television actor. Is there a difference in how you approach the two?
I am really enjoying stage work, there’s so much detail you can bring to it. I feel like theatre has always been my first love and I’m really enjoying being back in a rehearsal room and doing a comedy. One of my first jobs was The Importance of Being Earnest and it was genuinely the most joyous experience I’ve ever had. This feels very similar, it’s about playing and being in the moment and listening to the audience. There is a completely different technique and it’s something I’ve always loved. Growing up I always wanted to do stage, I feel most comfortable [there]. The screen is completely different, I find the tempo of it challenging, it’s so stop-start. You don’t get to track a whole character’s arc in one or two hours, you’ve got months of filming. But I’m starting to find joy in both.

How do you decide what your next project will be?
It’s always fun to do something different from the last thing and change the medium. The fact that I’ve been able to do TV and a play within the same year, I find that joyous. They have different qualities. The last job I did, which was filming, I was crying a lot. It was modern day traumatic scenes… Going from that to pure comedy in this very light, enjoyable space is the joy of it. You can throw out a character, hang it up and go into the next one and explore who this person is, and work out what bits of you are connected.

With Annabel, the actress, and this socialite there’s 100% parts of me in both, whether I like it or not! 

Do you ever find that the character influences you as well?
Yes. It gets easier to get rid of them, but when I did The Importance of Being Earnest, because it was a seven month run, the way we were talking to each other changed. It’s Oscar Wilde and the language is so flowery and we started saying ‘perfection’ and all these ridiculous phrases! It does get into your psyche after a while and definitely when I’ve been in a gritty drama, you end up becoming slightly that way as well… I wouldn’t be surprised [with Backstairs Billy] if I become camper and camper!

I worked with David Suchet and he used to say: “you have to look in the mirror and say goodbye to your character, it’s very important to do that for your friends and family. You can’t just keep turning up and being a different person every time you come home.” 

Thankfully, these characters are fun and I’m not bringing home Lady Macbeth everyday!

Emily Barber, as Annabel Maud and Lady Astlebury, credit: Johan Persson

Are there any individuals from screen or stage who have had a lasting impact on you?
Yes David, he was amazing to me. It was one of my first jobs and he completely took me under his wing. I was auditioning for Shakespeare at the time, which I ended up getting, and he gave me Shakespeare lessons in between shows in the dressing room. He was very much a mentor.  

Adrian Lester, I did a play with [him], he similarly was incredibly supportive. I learned lots about how to maintain a performance as much as creating one. When you’re at drama school you only do week runs. But actually getting to do four or five months in the West End, it’s a real craft. 

On screen, I’ve worked with lots of great people and you get nuggets from each job. [In terms of] directors I worked with, Justin Chadwick had such an incredible process in filming. You learn from every job, whether you’re conscious of it or not. 

Thanks so much Emily, it’s been lovely chatting with you. Before we go, is there anything, at the end of the evening, you hope the audience will take from Backstairs Billy?
I hope they’ll have belly laughed from start to finish and just had a glorious evening in the theatre, having learned a lot about an extraordinary friendship between two people. There are moments that will be shocking, moments that are poignant – because there’s a lot of references back to Bertie, her late husband at the time – but also some hysterical moments.

I can’t imagine they won’t be leaving talking about certain things that happen in this play that are rather naughty. Or just very, very funny…

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