May 01, 1999

The Eyes of Patrick White

Filed under: Archive,Comedy

Remember You’re Out
Barry Humphries

Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The heavy red curtain rises on Her Majesty’s elderly stage, the auditorium is flooded with digitally-operated blue light and, through the blinding haze, Barry Humphries clambers out of a camphor glory box. It is an extravagant entrance for the shy, retiring Mr Humphries, a comic artist who prefers to communicate through proxies and intermediaries. But for his new show, Remember You’re Out, he is making an exception. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his autobiography, More Please, he is more prepared to step forward and be noticed.

In his stage dressing gown Humphries recalls the history of the camphor, keeper of his mother’s bridal regalia, fur stoles and eventually, stage dress-ups for Barry and his siblings. These are the drapes and brocades he hid behind, pretending he was on the wireless. Here is the sailor suit he wore as a little chap in the 1940’s, innocently warbling Purcell as Nips and Shepherds Come Away. Tonight Barry Humphries is, as he once put it, looking back retrospectively.

And there is much to recall. From out of the box comes a little woollen cone, maize coloured actually, to use Humphries’ legendary precision with the colour chart. The actor places it over his familiar flop of hair and he becomes Mrs Everage circa 1955. Joined by accompanist Andrew Ross, Edna in prototype is offering to open her doors at 36 Humoreske Street, Moonie Ponds, to billet athletes to the Melbourne Olympics. The script, reprinted in the program, sparkles with Humphries’ faultless ear for genteel slang and contemporary colours, fabrics and brands. There is chenille and axminster, duck-egg blue and genoa. With a mix of Malaprop and Mapp and the turn of a beautifully parsed inanity, Mrs Everage manages to put a moist sponge finger right on the button.

Of all Humphries’ characters he maintains most affection for Sandy Stone. Based, he tells us, on his parents’ neighbour Mr Whittle, he has a voice like footsteps on dead gum leaves. Applying his make up beside the piano, Humphries steps out of a cloud of talc in the grey wig and – uniform of a man in no hurry- dressing gown and slippers of Sandy Stone, late of 36 Gallipoli Crescent, Glen Iris. And by this stage, also late of this world. Sandy has been gathered, and his robust wife Beryl, remarried and rewidowed, has moved to the Sunshine Coast to further her business interests, running a Dreamtime Cultural Centre and Snack Bar.

Sandy, circumscribed as he is by the garden sprinkler and the logistics of parking the vehicle, is not the figure of fun he once was. Time has turned satire into something close to nostalgia. Certainly, as his creator comes nearer to matching Sandy in age, he is gentler about the consolations of the suburban idyll and instead turns his barbs towards the booster philistinism of neo-classic Tuscan town houses.

A fanfare of themes for Channel Nine sport programs, announces sporting identity Murray Buzzacott, only to be interrupted by a business class traveller just in from Switzerland. With his rumpled suit and built up shoes, his sozzler’s nose and snaggle teeth, it is Sir Les Patterson, Humphries as the lord of misrule, complete with sly protestations of innocence and Aristophanic phallus flapping down his trouser leg. Sir Les has been talking with the IOC about those allegations of consorting with “Mormon hornbags” in Salt Lake. He is embattled and beleaguered, of course, but good enough to take out time to talk with the ladies and tell the gents some blue.

After interval, in a further blaze of James McKenzie’s lighting, the artist formerly known as Dame Edna makes her entrance. By now Mr Humphries has been completely usurped. Edna, the omnivorous sociopath is on the prowl. Humphries once said, in an interview, that she looks out at audiences with the eyes of Patrick White- and tonight is no exception. She is full of love for us she reminds us. But she is also inquisitive, we are her demographic, her socio-economic ethno-gendered spectrum. We are not so much her audience, she says, as her focus group. Anyone got a tattoo ? In no time flat, Pam in row C is describing her Japanese symbol and her tortoise, and Jo and Nancy are describing their living rooms in Black Forest and Linden Park.

Humphries works off the audience with ferocious aplomb. Ian and his wife Vicky are served a meal onstage, Sia and Harry are honoured with Edna’s psychic prediction. It is fun for ten minutes but Edna spins it out to thirty and the banter, always verging on the cruel, depends increasingly on the kindness -and forebearance- of strangers, all of them middle-aged women to whom Edna offers toxic sisterhood and Barry Humphries his weary derision. Having completed his torments by dressing his audience victims in preposterous costume, they get their Nivea, Haighs chocs and marching orders.

But benediction comes – both for Edna and us- with the gladdie ritual. There can be no stranger sight in all of show business than a gladiolus wielding audience saluting a cross-dressed comedian with the fervour of a congregation. Perhaps having made us sit in trepidation for so long, it is with gratitude we now so willingly stand and tremble. Whatever is the case, Barry Humphries, forty six years into his remarkable career in burlesque, is a performer without equal. As he peers impertinently into our lives, he does so with the attention to detail of a painter and the ear for language of a poet . With the lyricism of Betjeman and Brack, perhaps, or- come to think of it- the eyes of Patrick White.

“The eyes of Patrick White” The Adelaide Review, No.188, May, 1999, p.34.

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