Barry Humphries is a man of many faces—actor, writer, comedien, producer and raconteur—and the man behind a clutch of loud and larger than life alter-egos famed around the world. But in his latest Australian tour, it’s his own face that is given the limelight as he takes the audience on a retrospective ride through his early days and career as we discover a little more about the man behind the characters.
The night in Canberra, ‘gateway to Yass’, was a leisurely stroll through the past. In fact it takes well over two hours, but it’s a well-paced journey, as you’d expect from a master of comedic timing. We travel back to childhood days in inner Melbourne (then outer), of attempted poisoning and bullying, the influence of his mother, the ‘mistress of the vocabulary of disapproval’, and a failed Shakespearean debut. Along the way, amidst a torrent of one-liners and anecdotes, the spawning of his greatest characters are revealed – Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson – borne from true life. It’s a fascinating insight.
The stage set is simple: an man in a pink suit (of course) on a bare stage, save for a matching pink lounge chair. His old mate and faithful accompanist of 25 years, Andrew Ross, sits at one side and gently adds some tinkling and a few words from time to time. There’s no need for much else. In Canberra the venue was unduly large and cavernous, a pity as it didn’t befit the notion of an intimate unmasking and the painting of a self-portrait. Perhaps the marketing was too low key—surely a talent of this calibre deserves a full house.
The body language lets you know this man is ageing (he’s 84), as he potters across stage and slumps occasionally into that pink chair. But his mind is quick, his language precise, and his timing impeccable. No doubt it’s well rehearsed, but it’s not all scripted and there’s an opportunity for a moment of impromptu repartee with an audience member — Helen, who lives in an apartment, not a flat. Just a friendly little chat, by all accounts, but all the while gently taking the piss out of her for the audience’s pleasure. Just as Edna might do.
The great characters of Barry’s career – Edna, Les and Sandy Stone – join him on stage in the second set , not in person but in the form of selected film clips and archival footage. In front of a star-studded curtain, another liberal scattering of stars appears — of the Hollywood kind, royalty and presidents — revealed in a snippets of classic moments of the past. Even a young Donald Trump was there with Ivana, before he was orange, but who appeared just as clueless back then as he is now.
The clips are old so the vision is not crystal clear from a distance and sometimes the audio difficult to catch, particularly the speech of the outlandish and despicable Sir Les. Or perhaps it’s the fault of those dreadful teeth he had to mumble through?
It’s a joy to look back and remember the moments many grew up with, and marvel at how risque some of it was. To watch Mrs Norman Everage, dowdy housewife of Monee Ponds, evolve over the decades and climb the ranks of society to become Dame Edna Everage, international star and style icon, beloved of royalty, with a charming grin and a wickedly acid tongue.
Of course, Edna and particularly Sir Les can get away with a lot more than Barry can, although the man himself still likes to push the boundaries, provocateur that he is. He does get away with quite a lot, as his string of politically incorrect one liners and name calling would attest. The particularly faint-hearted might be offended, but the audience well and truly deemed them funny.
It’s not all fun and levity. At one point we’re let into a little of the whirlwind decade of the 60s, when fame and drinking mixed to dizzy heights, and when he dodged oblivion by staying for a time at a ‘private hospital for thirsty people’. He seems grateful for the rescue and his escape from the chemicals which consumed others, and the opportunity to enjoy the things still dear to him – his refuge the stage, art, music, and grandkids. And so are we.
He finished the show with a song, as he always does, and a promise to be back next year with a new show. He might be well and truly an octogenarian, but he’s not going anywhere yet.
See him in this show if you can, or wait for the next if you must, but see him because, in the words of that random bloke he came across recently in Sydney, the one who doesn’t know him from a bar of soap:
‘Baz, you’re a fucking icon.’