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Barry Humphries reveals all - William Cook

Blog | By William Cook | Apr 09, 2022


Touring, Nationwide

By William Cook

‘What’s the audience like?’ hisses Barry Humphries, in a stage whisper, from the wings. ‘Old,’ says his unseen associate. ‘You mean mature,’ says Barry.

The audience at the Nottingham Playhouse was indeed - how shall we put it - well-seasoned, but compared to Humphries most of this crowd were positively youthful. The grand old man of Anglo-Australian stage and screen is now 88, and even though he’s incredibly sprightly for such a grand old age, he’d be the last one to pretend the years haven’t left their mark.

Much of this stand-up show is delivered sitting down (‘Getting out of a chair isn’t as easy as it used to be’) and his delivery is a lot more measured than it once was. Yet the stage presence and comic timing are still there, and so is the incisive wit. After all these years, he still knows how to work a room. ‘I’m approaching 60 - from the wrong direction,’ he says, and we all howl, relieved and delighted to learn that he’s still got it.

His new show, which opened this week, and tours the country until June, is called The Man Behind the Mask, and in the programme he promises to tell his own story - how it all began. ‘I had certainly talked about some of my adventures and theatrical experiences in countless interviews, but I always wore a mask,’ he writes. ‘I invented a character called “Barry Humphries” and he did those interviews. Tonight you’ll see me. Probably.’

So do we? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, this is an intimate, emotive performance, full of personal revelations. On the other hand, there’s still a lot of green-room gloss – gags and anecdotes which wouldn’t look out of place in an after-dinner speech or delivered from a chat-show sofa. The audience loved the broader jokes, but for me the most engrossing elements were the ones with the least laughs. Imagine, just imagine, a Barry Humphries show with no laughs at all. Now that really would be a revelation.

He begins with his bourgeois upbringing in 1940s Melbourne. His father was a successful builder, constructing smart suburban villas for Melbourne’s aspiring middle-classes. With a novelistic eye for detail, Humphries revels in the absurdities of this Antipodean Metroland, an ersatz Home Counties transported to a far-flung corner of South-East Asia.

Humphries’s portrait of his mother has a depth and candour that’s missing from his showbiz stories. In a typically eloquent and perceptive phrase, he calls her ‘a mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement’, but even though their relationship was strained it’s clear they loved each other, and it’s this affection that makes his reminiscences so funny. Her ‘genteel bigotry’ was borne of social insecurity, a rich source of comedy. Although he denied it while she was alive, to save her feelings, he now admits she was the initial inspiration for Dame Edna Everage (though his Housewife Superstar was actually named after a favourite nanny).

As in all theatrical memoirs, the early failures are far more entertaining and illuminating than the later triumphs. As Humphries observes, to become a celebrity is to become a sort of ghost. In the first half, the big screen is used to good effect to show snapshots and home movies from his early days Down Under. In the second half, it’s used to show clips from Dame Edna’s TV shows.

I felt this was a bit of a swizz (especially now all this stuff is just a few clicks away on YouTube) but everyone else seemed to love it. The most intriguing clips were the ones where Dame Edna interviews Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. These clips created a distinct froideur around the room, and not just because they’re such divisive figures. To my mind it was because, in this instance, it was Humphries who’d been fooled.

Yet just as I was about to write off the second half as an extended curtain call, he delivered one of the best and bravest monologues I’ve ever seen. It was about his descent into alcoholism and his eventual recovery, and it was honest, heartfelt and intensely moving. ‘There is no alcoholic more grandiose than one with no money or prospects,’ he concluded. There was scarcely a laugh in it, but it got a huge round of applause.

I would have loved to see more of this kind of thing, and a bit less step-pause-gag, but maybe I’m in a minority. The audience lapped up the lighter stuff, and when the time came for him to hand out the gladioli, Dame Edna’s familiar finale (‘I used to throw thousands of these,’ he said, ‘but this show has a small profit margin’) they gave him a standing ovation which felt like an ovation for all the shows he'd ever done.

Barry Humphries is that rare thing, a great entertainer with a great intellect, an Antipodean Peter Ustinov, and we’re lucky to have him. Just think: if he’d made a success of his early roles as a straight actor in Australia, we might have never met Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson. And The Oldie’s finest, favourite columnist might never have washed up on our chilly shores.

· Until 6th June. For tour dates visit www.manbehindthemask.co.uk