Interview with Backstairs Billy playwright Marcelo Dos Santos

Posted on 14 September 2023

2023 has been a right royal year! We’ve had a coronation, a royal baby and even a tell-all memoir! Don’t pack away that bunting and relegate the commemorative plates to the cupboards just yet, as the crowning glory in this year’s royal calendar will be taking place next month, and you are cordially invited.

Hailed as an ‘important new voice’ by director Michael Grandage, Marcelo Dos Santos latest play explores the complex relationship between the Queen Mother and her loyal steward, William “Billy” Tallon. The production, which stars Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton, centres around a pivotal point in their 50-year friendship, where strikes are bringing Britain to its knees and the class divide is growing by the minute.

We sat down with the award-winning playwright ahead of his West End debut, to discuss the challenges in depicting such iconic characters for stage, his subconscious miming abilities, and why chocolate is just as important as a laptop (or notebook) when writing for theatre.

You’ve had huge success as a playwright, with previous award-winning shows Feeling Afraid as If Something Terrible is Going to Happen winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022, and Complicité’s Lionboy receiving critical acclaim across the UK, Boardway, and on its international tour. Backstairs Billy will be your first West End production. How do you feel about your play entering such an iconic space?

Marcelo: To say I’m excited is an understatement. I’m giddy. It always feels like a small miracle when a play goes on anywhere, so to be premiering a new comedy straight into the West End is absolutely incredible. The West End really is iconic with such a rich history and to be part of that history, working with these sensational actors and team is an absolute privilege and pleasure.

This is your first production which features iconic characters from recent history. How different is it writing about real people? Did you have to change your writing process?

Marcelo: In the end it wasn’t very different because although there are some facts to work from, 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.

Talk us through your writing routine.

Marcelo: Procrastination interrupted by pure panic. Also chocolate.

When did you find out Luke Evans and Penelope Wilton would be starring in your show? Did the script change after you found out who would be in it?

Marcelo: I only really knew once everything was confirmed, which was quite near the announcement. It hasn’t changed a great deal yet, partly because Penelope and Luke are such perfect casting. 

How involved are you in the rehearsal process?

Marcelo: I will be there for the first week and the last week. It’s useful to be there at the beginning and then step away and let them get on with it. Also coming back allows some objectively and fresh eyes. I’m hoping to avoid technical rehearsals though. Tech for a writer is really not fun because there is absolutely nothing you can do, and you just have to sit there.

Have you seen any Backstairs Billy posters out in the wild? Do you still get excited to see your name and work out there?

Marcelo: I saw one outside the Duke of York’s which caused a big ol’ gulp moment but, yes, absolutely it’s so exciting to see my work out there. The biggest thrill though is seeing my plays in bookshops. 

Do you like to watch your shows hidden at the back of the theatre, or in the midst of the action?

Marcelo: I do tend to like to hide at the back partly because it’s so nerve-wracking, but also because I have a really bad habit of mouthing the words along which must be annoying for everyone.

If you could go back in time and speak to the Queen Mother and Billy Talon, what would you like to ask them?

Marcelo: Whether they considered each other to be friends, or was there always the divide of class and role?

Will you write more biographical plays? Is there anyone else from history you would like to explore on stage?

Marcelo: I am really interested in the inter-war period and would love to write about the Bloomsbury group. There’s also a lot of interesting queer historical figures and movements which I think could make fantastic plays.

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