Back with a Vengeance

Lyric Theatre (Barry Humphries)


Professional production

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

It might have been true of Cleopatra, but not for the rest of us. Time has us all in his inexorable grip, and not even that other legendary lady, the one from Australia with the Opera House specs, is exempt. Dame Edna Everage, I regret to report, is getting old and, like too many aging stars, has become a caricature of herself, substituting style for substance and trading on her fifty-year reputation and increasingly outrageous frocks rather than working on her script and updating the jokes.
BR> The implications of her surname have changed too – no longer Average, she has indeed become Ever Aged, and it was with nostalgic memories of the past, when her wit was sharp and her audience control tighter, that I watched her new show on opening night.

Even the set pieces, like the ritual mocking of members of the audience who were foolish enough to get seats in the front three rows, weren’t as witty as they used to be, and at times she was out of her depth, especially with was-it-Lynne? from Port Lincoln, which isn’t in Brisbane, and so provided no local references to be milked for laughs.

But you have to give it to her (whoops! – him – it’s so easy to forget the real gender status of the Dame), or his researchers, for getting the local references so right, and some of the old tricks still work, like the trembling gladdies at the end of the show (Phillip Adams, eat your heart out!). The final audience gimmick worked well, too, when a hapless younger man was brought up from the audience to be married on stage to an equally hapless middle-aged woman, after which the unsuspecting mother of the lad received a phone call from Edna to announce the happy news. It was one of those gimmicks that could have fallen flat, and I suspect the phone call was staged in every sense of the word – too many risks with answering machines and irate customers these days – but everyone played along and it was very funny, except that, like so much of the show, it went on too long.

It was Dame Edna’s show, but there were guest appearances from Sir Les Patterson, one character I have always detested not just for his crudity, but because he was created many years ago as Minister for the Arts, a deliberate, unkind and, worst of all, invalid swipe at Australia’s cultural pretensions to pander to British prejudices against the colonies. Some of us, who have been watching your shows for almost 50 years, Mr Humphries, have long memories, and for this particular Patterson-watcher, the character is now so crass as to almost unwatchable. Australia has changed, and dick jokes and farts aren’t funny any more, any more than yard-long dongers, or using the c-word as a term of abuse. The point may be that Sir Les is stuck in the past but even so, this kind of humour is itself way past its use-by date. It just leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – and don’t look for any ambiguity there.

But much can be forgiven for the reappearance of Sandy Stone, back from the dead with his dressing gown and hottie, reminiscing in the shades about his dear widowed Beryl, now eking our her final days in a sub-human nursing home, having been diddled out of all her savings by an Indian telemarketer. Sandy is a brilliant creation, who deserves to rank high in the pantheon of Australian comic creations, because he doesn’t have to be outrageous to make his point. I remember him fondly from the days when he was still alive and living in Gallipoli Crescent in Glen Iris (you can take the girl out of Melbourne, but you can’t take Melbourne out of the girl), with the sand-blasted reindeer on the glass front door, and the flying ducks on the wall, and The Great Book of Humour in the bookcase, when he and Beryl used to take their picnic lunches along on the Wattletree Road tram. Then it was the humour of recognition and affection, and I’m glad he still comes back from the dead to make me remember what Barry Humphries can still do when he wants to, and before he began to overplay his characters to the point where it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief.

Wealth and fame aren’t to be sneezed at, I know, but I yearn for the gentler days when the Dame wasn’t a megastar, but a housewife from Moonie Ponds whose pride and joy was her skill with the lamington log, where Madge the bridesmaid was a figure of fun rather than derision, and when life was sweeter and simpler. Perhaps it’s just as well that Sandy Stone is dead – he doesn’t belong with the shallow characters that Humphries now channels.

Still, the audiences are thronging to the Lyric Theatre, and the two young lesbians in the next seats thought all the West End jokes were hilarious (as I said, he does his research very thoroughly), so perhaps it’s just me whom age has withered. I certainly couldn’t do a stand-up show like this at his age. But I have an underlying regret that this great mind has, like Clive James, sold out to fame and fortune, and I wonder what lasting effects this has had on them both. If you see this show, you might, if you’re old enough, ponder the same question. < BR>
Musical director/associate director: Andrew Ross

Set designer: Brian Thompson:

Playing until Sunday 24 June 2007, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinees Saturdays 1.30pm, Sundays 5pm

Duration : 2 hours 40 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 13th June 2007)