Barry Humphries has been treading the boards for 58 years. In those years Humphries has also accumulated a string of awards including an AO in 1982 for his services to theatre and a CBE in 2007 for his services to entertainment.
Humphries has also taken his best known and most loved character, Edna Everage, from the biting satire of being an ‘average’ Australian housewife out of the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds to the kitsch Dame instantly recognisable in all her gaudy pomposity. All the while taking many, many Australians on that hilarious ride with him and inventing other popular characters. At the age of 78 Humphries is on his farewell tour EAT, PRAY, LAUGH!
From the moment the ex-cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson walks on stage in orange shorts and Hawaiian shirt the one thing his audience certainly does is laugh. Sir Les has retired from politics and become a celebrity chef (“Australia’s answer to Nigella Lawson”). Ranting with all his usual sexist/racist/homophobic glory as he cooks “gourmet rissoles” on his backyard BBQ, Sir Les is also dealing with the side effects of having eaten a dodgy taco. An on stage toilet ensures fart (“trouser cough”) jokes – and worse – abound. Sir Les likes Adelaide (“the gateway to Glenelg”) and isn’t really sexist, after all he’s giving elocution lessons to Julia Gillard (“Fanta pants”) or racist because he adds MSG to his rissoles (“for the chinks”) or homophobic as his own brother Gerard is gay (“a fully paid-up, card-carrying vagina decliner”).
Segueing wonderfully, in fact the scene /character changes are a highlight of the show being both surprising and ingenious, we meet Gerard – a Roman Catholic priest whom Cardinal Pell himself has praised as having “touched everyone he’s known” – the ankle alarm going off when he offers a young Asian man some lollies is a particularly amusing touch. In this guise Humphries seems to be channelling Dick Emery’s buck-toothed vicar through the lens of a paedophile priest. Still, it has the desired effect as the mostly middle-aged and middle class audience revels in the obvious and base humour, which has become Humphries trademark.
With an explosively brilliant scene change we meet the eternally gentle Sandy Stone. This is where Humphries slows the show and tugs at heartstrings and the audience do respond as Humphries intends. The ‘returned gentleman’ is not unlike a kinder, gentler Alf Garnett in repose. In that sense Humphries might just be dealing with an Australia and Australians that have passed into history although he does display a keen eye for what would be the contemporary concerns of his characters. As Sandy ascends back to heaven the curtain drops and the 20-minute interval begins.
Everybody knows exactly what, or who, is coming and Humphries doesn’t disappoint. The curtain rises to a short film – an American style television exposé until the grand Dame makes her extravagant entrance riding on top of an Indian elephant with the obligatory “Hello Possums!”.
From the purple hair to the blindingly sparkling dress (and those glasses!), Dame Edna Everage is as lavishly gaudy as all her fans would expect. The Dame tells us she’s been staying at an ashram where she received a caffeine enema that, naturally, put her mind to sleep immediately and kept her bottom up all night. The grand Dame also explains how the pressures of celebrity have forced her to retire.
What happens from then on is vintage Dame Edna. Claiming to suffer from Asperger’s, bi-polar, gluten intolerance, restless legs and attention deficit disorder, there might just be a clue to the truth in that list of conditions as to why this is a farewell tour. Humphries frequently referred to teleprompters during the two and a half hour show but it didn’t impede the performance in any way. The Dame drew jocular attention to those “paupers” in the cheaper seats and brought four audience members from the most expensive seats on to the stage for a “spiritual master class”.
With songs, humour and stagecraft Humphries had the audience in the palm of his hand, not to let go in a hurry, and the audience remained enthralled no matter how old the jokes were.
After a wonderful costume change on stage the show closes with the audience singing along and clapping in time as the Queen of Kitsch implores those lucky enough to have received one from her to “stick up your gladiolas and thrust, thrust, thrust”. The ending has all the communal joy of a British Music Hall performance.
To tremendous applause Barry Humphries stepped out through a wall of gladioli as his natural dapper self, wearing a blue velvet smoker’s jacket with a white shirt and black bow tie. Humphries lifts an expensive hat off his head and that familiar forelock falls across his face as he bows to the audience.
Humphries settles the audience down – he has to, before giving a short talk on the need to upgrade Her Majesty’s Theatre by public subscription, as we in the arts don’t enjoy “the 500 million dollar subsidy used to destroy the Adelaide oval”.
He leaves the audience with the comment that he wants “each and every one of you to come along to my next farewell show”. Humphries is a genuine cultural icon but don’t take him at his word in or out of character – he is a master satirist after all!