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Barry Humphries in The Man Behind the Mask at Churchill Theatre

It’s wonderful to be a solo performer,” Barry Humphries said in his acceptance speech for Best Solo Performance at the 2014 WhatsOnStage Awards, “because then, you have no one to thank.” Here, he gets as far as putting on the outlandish glasses his alter ego Dame Edna Everage preferred to wear, which itself gets a cheer, but this show is essentially Humphries talking about his own life and career. One can never be wholly and entirely sure how objective it is, given that he is controlling his own narrative, though he comes across as someone who wants to tell a comprehensive story.

Barry Humphries The Man Behind The Mask. Photo by TEG Dainty.
Barry Humphries The Man Behind The Mask. Photo by TEG Dainty.

There was almost inevitable video footage of, amongst other things, an appearance at the Royal Variety Performance, and an extract from ‘Last Night of the Poms’ (yes, Poms) at the Royal Albert Hall. An extract from an interview on Terry Wogan’s flagship television show on BBC One in 1988 involved that episode’s other guests, Donald and Ivana Trump – the business tycoon’s first wife quite confidently predicted he could enter the political sphere at some point in the future. Another involved Boris Johnson, then a Conservative backbencher, spouting nonsense (quelle surprise): the comic value in the selected extract lay more in the reactions of fellow panellists on Dame Edna’s show, who seemed earnest in their attempts to understand what Johnson was going on about, while also looking completely confused. Humphries’ point here (in Theresa May’s infamous words, ‘nothing has changed’) was sufficiently made.

This was not, however, a political show – there are tales about his childhood antics, and, almost as a reminder to his faithful fans and followers, recollections of comedy gigs that didn’t go so well. But neither is it a deep exploration of the challenges faced by comedians on tour (‘nothing has changed’ being something of a recurring theme), with a few poignant moments focusing mostly on time spent with immediate family, and a brief story about overcoming an alcohol addiction. There aren’t many people who can honestly claim to have no relapses in fifty-three years – and counting.

The comic timing is still remarkable, and as ever, patrons sit in the front row at their own risk. Eliciting hearty laughter from a discernible audience by way of a discussion about the colour of bathrooms is not something a) easily done and b) that happens every day. (Except perhaps it does, dependent on how gruelling Humphries’ tour schedule is.) The sheer breadth of his career is worth doing a show about – everything from Twelfth Night to a Noel Coward play, Design For Living, to television shows to the original London stage production of Oliver!

Ben Dawson is at the piano throughout, but doesn’t seem to have that much to do: Humphries prefers, refreshingly, not to have musical accompaniment throughout. It’s pleasing to see someone who has enough confidence in their own material to present it without unnecessary bells and whistles. There were still images and videos galore, projected onto a large screen, but these all added to the performance, providing context. If I had to pick a favourite story out of the many told in this show, I’d go for the one about Emily Perry (1907-2008), who played Dame Edna’s silent and stoic sidekick Madge Allsop. Regular readers will know what comes next: it would be giving too much away to say more about that.

A farewell tour is planned for next year, Humphries told the audience, who greeted that announcement with glee. “Am I slowing down? Of course I am.” But at 88 years young, the storytelling ability is still there, and his latest show is delightful as much as it is insightful. Still keeping up with the times, he quips, “These days, you don’t have to be funny. You just have to identify as funny.” Well, I identify as fully entertained.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A revelatory trip through his colourful life and theatrical career, Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask is currently touring the UK.

In an intimate, confessional evening – seasoned with highly personal, sometimes startling, and occasionally outrageous stories – Australia’s best-loved entertainer will be peeling off his mask to introduce the man behind the clown.

For more than 60 years, Humphries, AO, CBE. has held a mirror to Australia and Australians, revealing their virtues, their foibles, their triumphs and their failings through a gallery of adored characters, including Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Paterson and Sandy Stone.

Produced by TEG Dainty & TEG MJR

Sunday 29 May & Sunday 5 June
extra date Sunday 12 June
all at 7.30pm

Gielgud Theatre
Shaftesbury Avenue
London W1D 6AR

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