Having held a mirror to Australian society for more than 50 years, master comic performer Barry Humphries shows no signs of slowing down in this “farewell” tour. There is even a brand new character on board, joining the time-honoured favourites slobbering politician Sir Les Patterson, dear departed Sandy Stone and beaming gigastar Dame Edna Everage.
Director Simon Phillips has fashioned the first act into an extended scenario which showcases the three male characters of the evening. Dr Sir Les Colin Patterson welcomes us to a backyard barbie inspired by the current cooking show craze. Disgraced man of the cloth Brother Gerard Patterson drops in next, before a cataclysmic psychic event conjures wistful spectre Sandy Stone, late of Glen Irisss.
Brian Thompson’s verdant Aussie suburban dream set design is lushly colourful, with a sprinkling of sneaky trap doors for fast change entrances and exits. Matt Scott’s vivid lighting design bathes every square metre in the brightest possible tones.
Dame Edna’s costumes are, as expected, a lavish highlight. For the final segment, Thompson and costume designer Janet Hines have created a gladioli-themed tribute to Gabriella Tylesova’s incredible peacock backdrop and costume for the climactic title song in Phillips’ production of Love Never Dies. Despite the clever wit shown in this homage, it is doubtful as to whether much more than 1% of audiences will make the connection.
If there is a creative element that lets down the production, it is the harsh sound design. This aspect does no favours for the four supporting players, who do not seem to have been chosen for their singing.
Humphries’ energy is nothing short of amazing, with a dependence on the teleprompter the only real sign of age. For cultural knowledge and insight, coupled with comic invention, his brilliance is unrivalled.
The trio of characters in act one run the gamut from the noisy diarrhea gags and smutty innuendo of Sir Les to the touching pathos of Sandy Stone’s poignant reminiscences. Brother Gerard runs into trouble offering the male pianist a sweetie. The fact Humphries can exact such absolute character changes so quickly, without the benefit of television editing and prosthetics, is a marvel to see live. Even the skin tone of his characters appears different, along with voice, inflection, posture as well as hair make up and costume.
The Joh and Flo era is somewhat distant in this second decade of the new millennium, and yet the lecherous character of Sir Les remains entertaining. Skewering pollies and showering the first rows with flowing saliva, it is Sir Les’ complete lack of political correctness in particular that takes us back to a different time.
The ultimate attraction of the night is the grand Dame herself, and Humphries does not disappoint, devoting the entire second act to his world famous creation. While not presenting any new material as such, the audience interaction at least provides variety as every audience is different.
In expressing all the wicked thoughts none of us would ever dare say out loud, Edna prompts a particular type of shocked “did she really just that?” type of laughter that is all the sweeter for the guilty pleasure it provides. Piercing the latest celebs and vacuous trends with mock indignation and unbridled scorn, Edna has us so fully in her palm that even a curl of that ruby lower lip is enough to prompt more hysterics.
With Dame Edna hailing from Moonee Ponds, and Humphries residing in leafy Camberwell, knowledge of suburban Melbourne knowledge is exacting even down to streets within suburbs. Audience members in the front rows are devoured, to the delight of those safely further back, with their timid answers to Edna’s probing questions a source of further disdain and derision.
The floral finale sends hundreds of blissful gladioli-bearing theatergoers out into the streets of Melbourne like ambassadors for niceness.
Eat, Pray, Laugh Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 2 August 2012 before continuing its national tour.
Photos: William Hall
This review published on Theatre People 20 July 2012