The first night (definitely) of Barry Humphries’ farewell tour (allegedly) took place in the distinguished and elegant surroundings of the Milton Keynes Theatre. That’s a sentence that looks unlikely on many levels. But it’s true; for Mrs Chrisparkle and I were amongst the glitterati lucky enough to attend that sumptuous occasion. I’ve seen Barry Humphries just once before, in “A Night with Dame Edna” at the Piccadilly Theatre, circa 1979 if I remember rightly. I went with a couple of school/university friends and I have to say it was one of the funniest evenings at the theatre I can remember. The show started with a substantial address by the Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson; then there was a brief sketch with retired soldier Sandy Stone; and after the interval, a lengthy assault by Dame Edna Everage, to include devastating humiliation of the audience and a mass gladioli rally.
And this time round? Structurally, not much has changed. The main difference is that Mr Humphries has now surrounded himself with four good looking dancers and a pianist, who all help to keep the show running along nicely. We find ourselves in Sir Les Patterson’s garden, where he is about to create a pilot for his new TV cooking show. Retired from politics now, but still very much in the media glare, Sir Les has lost none of his persuasive charm where it comes to the ladies, with his tasteful summer clobber and uninhibited personal habits. You’ll be delighted to know that both the barbie and the dunny form part of the routine. Woe betide anyone who foolishly books seats within the front few rows of a Barry Humphries show. You will get involved! Suffice to say Sir Les has a few tricks up his sleeve and some absolutely side-splitting anecdotes. The punch line to the “peanut in the ear” routine is as comedy genius as it is unexpected.
Through artful means we also get introduced to Sir Les’ brother Gerrard – a very nice coup de theatre – and by a bizarre and complex way (I think Dame Edna would term it “spooky”) we see the return of Sandy Stone. If this were a routine on Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood would have described the transition from Gerrard to Sandy as “somewhat clunky, darling.” My memory of Sandy Stone from 1979 was that he was a rather nondescript character who created a bit of a “down” between the jollities of the two main comic creations. So when he appeared in this show I was rather expecting the comic atmosphere to ebb away. But actually, this was a most beautiful and touching comic/tragic monologue, superbly delivered, and you would have to be a very hard-hearted person not to have warmed to the old feller. It is completely different from what went before and what comes after, but for me it stood out as a truly stunning vignette, with a really sweet, moving ending.
After the interval Pinot Grigio, we get treated to near on ninety minutes with la Grande Dame herself. Long past her 1970s Housewife Superstar persona, she is now virtually a deity. And indeed, Dame Edna has just returned from being spiritual in India, so now she is a self-styled mystic guru with special healing powers to renew the flagging marriages of sad people from Milton Keynes (or in this case, Luton). Delightfully taking us through hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, and above all interacting with the audience members (a few of them somewhat unwillingly, I wonder why) she continues to do what she does best. Yes, there are a few rough round the edges comedy songs; yes, she still takes the mickey out of the elderly and the coiffurely-challenged. Slightly surreally, Mrs C and I were both reminded of Julian Clary in his Joan Collins Fan Club days; Dame Edna could just as easily started rifling through peoples’ handbags or commenting that they get their hair done by the council. But she didn’t; as her signature song goes, it’s probably because of her “niceness”. A comic creation supreme matched by a comic performance sublime.
Mr Humphries is 79 now, but still has an extraordinarily quick wit and the physical stamina to be on stage for the best part of two and a half hours. Once Dame Edna has dispensed with the legendary gladdies we get some computer generated video footage reminding us of all Mr Humphries’ comic creations, and to the most rousing reception I have heard for a very long time, Mr Humphries himself comes on for a final bow – all velvet jacket and dashing fedora. I can’t remember him ever before appearing as himself to finish off a Dame Edna show, almost providing us with a legal notice, the ocular proof, that she doesn’t really exist. No matter, there was something strangely emotional about that curtain call. Maybe it really is going to be his farewell tour. Maybe?
This was the first night of the tour, so could probably be counted as a “preview”, and there were a couple of slightly ragged edges to the presentation which I’m sure will quickly get ironed out. Press night is in November during his Christmas stint at the London Palladium, and the show is touring the entire country between now and March. It’s an incredibly funny night at the theatre and if you’ve never seen Sir Les or Dame Edna live – this just might be your last chance to do so; you won’t regret it.
Photographs from www.dameednafarewell.com – the tour details are all there too.