For his “farewell tour” Eat, Pray, Laugh back in 2013, Barry Humphries spent the vast majority of the show as his evergreen creations Dame Edna, Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. However, for a brief moment of the curtain call he took centre stage as himself, acknowledging his adoring public. Whether that was the germ of the idea which prompted his current “farewell tour” The Man Behind The Mask, I’m not sure, or maybe it was his one off 2019 “probing” by Rob Brydon at the Palladium in which he looked back at his career. Whatever the derivation, this time the man himself is front and centre for An Audience With…style outing which I caught up with at the Churchill Theatre in deepest Bromley. It takes us back to Humphries’ childhood in Melbourne and then canters through his career. That said, the careful listener will soon deduce that what is actually on display is another artful construct, although it’s probably closer to the real thing than anything else this 88 year old icon will ever give us in public.
The velvet jacketed, odd socked Humphries is slightly more tottery and a tad less whip sharp with the repartee than formerly but he’s still streets ahead of many other comics. And his set piece stories do engage and fascinate whether they reveal a cruel streak as in his recounting of how he nearly poisoned a fellow child or his melancholic reflections on his long conquered alcoholism. But most of the stories are there for the
humour quotient . There’s a glorious set of reminiscences about his early onstage appearances in Twelfth Night and Noel Coward’s Design For Living. In the latter, the author’s words eluded him, and he discovered that improvisation is the key to survival; he certainly turned that into an art form in Dame Edna’s frequently barbed interactions with her audience. Here, Humphries introduces some unscripted banter across the footlights, and waxes large on the extremely banal subject of soap which hints back at the glory days when the Dame used to interrogate people about their bathrooms. (I recall that one of the funniest lines ever uttered on the stage revolved around the notion of soap on a rope and how if you accidentally sat on it while in the bath, at least you could get it back!) Yes, I’d have liked more of this and of some topical stuff such as what must be a recently introduced gag about looking for tractors on the internet. Off script is where Humphries’ genius really soars but the well honed anecdotes flow freely and are told so deftly that you won’t be disappointed. The language is as artfully constructed and beautifully orotund as ever, as is his way with a killing phrase such as when he says of his mother that she was “a mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”.
To complement and supplement the narrative there’s plenty of pictorial evidence on display on a screen. This shows family photos, newspaper clippings ( I should really have entitled this review Are Houses Funny? in homage) and grainy video clips of the Dame on TV. There’s Edna on a sofa with the youthful
Trumps prophetically announcing his presidency. Next she’s interrogating a positively baby faced Boris Johnson immediately putting “her” finger on BJ’s popularity because he’s “a Tory MP you actually recognise” (click here) and branding him a future Prime Minister. This is a particularly poignant section as the clip shows fellow guest Shane Warne, a poignancy that also spills over into an understated tribute to Emily Perry – Edna’s long time mute stooge Madge Allsop. The new “Madge” is pianist Ben Dawson who provides brief linking music between the sections and accompanies a farewell song. He seems rather underused and has8 to sit looking interested in stories he’s already heard dozens of times before; he does wield a mean vacuum cleaner pre-show though. The piano, a leather captain’s chair and the inevitable vase of gladioli is the extent of the décor, but the relative simplicity of this show is the key to its success.
If you know and like Humphries’ work this is definitely a show to sit back and enjoy and puts him back where he admits to feeling the most comfortable – on a stage, with a live audience with which to engage, trade barbed insults, amuse, slightly shock and thoroughly entertain. The next “farewell tour” is already hinted at – let’s hope that is as prophetically correct as the Trump/Johnson prognostications.