Touring – reviewed at Richmond Theatre, London
Full disclosure: I have been following this man around for the best part of 50 years. Went with my brother Mike to his first show, Housewife Superstar, at the Apollo in the 70s, drawn as fans of his Private Eye cartoon strip. Stalls tickets severely denting a first job wage, we stood with the gladioli Edna Everage had hurled, to obey the final command “Tremble your gladdies!”
We have been to every London show since, including the Last Night of the Poms at the Albert Hall where we lustily sang her anthem ‘Why do we love Australia?’ Trembled in fear many times as Edna strafed the front stalls with audience-participation moments. Saw the Palladium “farewell”, all of nine years ago and the non-Edna show about Weimar music. Oh, and there was an unforgettable 2011 panto debut in which Edna flew across the auditorium on a giant possum.
So here I am at Barry Humphries’ feet again. He is 88, five shows in to a 27-date tour: this time he is presented as himself, the trickiest character of all. Grandfatherly in a velvet jacket, he is joined only by Ben Dawson at the piano to play some nostalgic snatches to move the mood on (though the pianist, clearly the New Madge, is seen in a pinny hoovering and dusting the stage as we settle down. Just one of those Barry gags).
He is here to tell us his life story, or tantalising bits of it. Old photographs in a gilt frame above him pepper the first half: childhood in genteel Melbourne, misdemeanours, first moments on stage, a shy Orsino embarrassed by his tights, a Coward hero disastrously drying mid scene. Glimpses of his mother as “mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”, and the multiple aunts and lady mayoresses on smalltown tours who all, somehow, collectively became Edna. He speaks of misjudged performances, arcane acting tips picked up and the comedian’s rule: as with a skidding car, when disastrous embarrassment or offence looms because you misread someone, just “steer straight into it!” Making it worse might make it better. Less brave comics might learn from that.
Unease at Australian success made him “need obscurity and total neglect”. Finding it in London he got work, as actor and cartoonist, but also in the 1960s hit the bottle and spent time in a secure “hospital for thirsty people”.
Waves of affection lap around him, the laughs skilfully provoked during apparently meandering departures or brief conversations with the front row. And they are good laughs, professional: because as he remarks in one of the few bitchy comments, nowadays comedians “don’t have to be funny. You just have to identify as funny”. Ouch.
The second half explodes into some video of Edna in her pride, leading a singalong in the RAH and in a series of interview and talk-show moments over decades. These include, with a historical frisson, a young Trump and a mid-career Boris Johnson talking rubbish about reclaiming Aquitaine and Burgundy, and being patronised as someone unable to learn from his own mistakes. Ouch again.
A passage of Edna condemning the “sick” habit of “female impersonation” by Barry strikes a refreshingly gender-critical note. We see him with Charles and Camilla and Elton and have commentary on it all from the man himself. There is a modest,oddly decent acknowledgement former alcoholism and the weight of it on others, and of being too grandiose to go to AA at first “because it was free”.
That leads to a moment that shakes you out of comedy and into something greater: the realization 53 years ago when he finally “put the cork in the bottle”, that without it he was happy. Just happy. And still is.
And looking back on all the years of fandom, I saw that this is why so many of us stuck with him, and will until the terrible day when he has to go. Through Edna’s divine appallingness and patronising insults, Les Paterson’s vintage disgustingness and every moment onstage and screen , this was why we wave our gladioli in fealty. Like another legendary comic, it is pure happiness he stands for and spreads. And we rise to our feet for that.
www.manbehindthemask.co.uk. Touring UK, a dozen more dates, including a new one at the Gielgud Theatre on Sunday June 12
out of lifelong gratitude