July 06, 2007

Fifty Years Young

Filed under: Archive,Comedy

Back with a Vengeance
Barry Humphries

Her Majesty
June 29.
Until July 7, 2007

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Barry Humphries is celebrating fifty years as a music hall artiste. In 1957 Mrs Everage from Moonie Ponds first peered around the door with her beady eyes and imperious curiosity to say hello. She really was a housewife then, with dull straight hair and a drab cloth coat, but she knew aqua from duck-egg blue and of course, her prudery and pretensions have only magnified over the decades. Barry Humphries’ now monstrous megastar strides the globe in a blizzard of self-serving celebrity and she is back, at Her Majesty’s, with a vengeance.

For Edna it is the same vengeance as always – to be the biggest star, to have the glitziest outfit (“Jane Lomax Smith will copy this frock,“ she shrieks in a twirl of titanium lame’) and to have the coolest entourage. The Edna-Tones, doubling as personal trainers, pilates instructors and personal security, display their well-toned pecs and rumps while Dame Edna makes a complete spectacle of herself.

The opening number, staged in her New York penthouse, gives way to archive footage of the Dame while Barry Humphries’ other incarnation Les Patterson prepares to take the stage. If Edna comes from Forties variety, Les is straight out of Aristophanes. With his jackass teeth spraying saliva on the front rows and his donkey-schlong prominent in his trouser line, he is the antic fool of all vulgarity, bluer than any duck, and, tonight, ready to bone his way to the top of Channel Nine. Les is replete from a feed at Hog’s Breath and a round with his personal assistant. I’m fuller than a Macquarie Banker’s wallet, he announces, I’m sweating like a glass blower’s arse.

Les has been having visitations – from the ghost of Kerry Packer. He’s worried the changes at Nine aren’t working – “Eddie McGuire wouldn’t know a tram was up him till the bell rang.” Sir Les, man of the world and connoisseur of the consular trough is now also needed in the board room. He is brilliantly revolting, startlingly crass – as once Humphries satirized Australian primness, now he makes fun of our sophistication. Les is as embarassing as phone-camera footage of a union rep, as unwelcome as a trouser cough at a Hillsong service.

Sandy Stone returns to close the first half. A welcome adagio to the frenetic movements of Dame Edna and Les, the ghost of Glen Iris slumps into the genoa velvet club lounge. A shade beneath the shade, he brings us up to speed on the progress of his widow, Beryl. She has fallen on hard times since the death of her second beau Clarrie Lockwood. The tidy sum he left her for her days at Tudor Mews have been swindled by Rhonda from Mumbai and Beryl is now in a federally-funded facility, surrounded by indifferent young “operatives” in iPods, sinking further into the twilight zone.

It is the grimmest view yet on Sandy’s world and even the nostalgia for brand names and the relaxed and comfortable fifties has been truncated. As Sandy talks about the Japs and Abos, Humphries dangles the bait towards the audience which, when it bites, reminds us that humour is amoral and the true comedian is no-one’s friend.

Act Two is all Edna, and Humphries’ energy and invention remains a marvel. Edna rattles through her current exploits, skiting and name-dropping. I am comfortable in my own skin, she whinnies, as she tells us that the Queen has a lovely sense of humour which doesn’t show on the coins.

The inevitable occurs as Edna prowls the audience like a hawk looking for field mice. I’m not picking on you, I am empowering you, she crows, while interrogating Patricia about her house at Victor and Cecily about her unit in Glenelg. Humphries wickedly exploits the postcode snobbery as Edna derides the responses even as the show depends on the participation. An interesting reversal occurs with the compatible DNA matching of David and Lorraine whose marriage is being arranged onstage. When Edna asks why he is amused, David matter of factly informs her that he is gay – to the deafening cheer of the audience. It is a brilliant turning point in the dynamics of the comedy and a reminder that honesty can never be ridiculed.

After the hilarious gospel spoof – “What will be My Legacy ?” – Edna begins firing gladioli into the crowd, up to the paupers in the circle and into the front rows. As trembling gladdies are raised – “wave that glad, grab life by the stalk” – Edna celebrates her wonderfully mad, priapic ritual of benediction and renewal. This is the spirit of comedy at its oldest and best. When, after locking Edna in her dressing room, Barry Humphries himself returns in tux and black hat to take the final ovation, it is thrilling. He makes half a century’s art look so easy we almost forget how extraordinary he is.

“Fifty years young” The Adelaide Review, No.320, July 6, 2007, p.19.

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