Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask, Churchill Theatre

by Bill Dyson

This is a terrific evening in which Humphries appears as himself with no disguises. This show is an exploration of his life and career, and what influenced and prompted him to ultimately become an international star selling out theatres in the West End and on Broadway.

There is a leather armchair onstage where Humphries sits very occasionally. Given he is now eighty-eight years old, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had done the entire performance seated but incredibly, he still has the energy to deliver a (mostly) standing performance for over two hours.

At the beginning, Humphries looks back on his childhood growing up in Melbourne’s suburb of Camberwell. His successful construction manager father influenced his own passion for architecture. At the back of the stage there is projector which allows us to see 8mm home films of his father and a rare photograph of his mother.

Humphries takes us through his career in repertory theatre and explains, often hilariously, the influences of his greatest comic creations, most notably Dame Edna Everage and Les Patterson. Interspersed within this, Humphries interacts with the audience a great deal, getting into a long discussion at one point about the colour of one audience member’s bathroom. He also touches on darker periods of his life, such as when his ongoing problems with alcoholism meant that he found himself in a psychiatric ward in the late 60’s.

Later we see excerpts of interviews with Dame Edna in her prime. She’s a guest alongside Trump on Wogan (Trump apparently genuinely thought Edna was a real woman), and a later talk show appearance where she interviews our current Prime Minister: ’you’re a man who refuses to learn from his mistakes’. All of these instances remind us of Humphries’ unique ability as Edna to throw insults at whichever celebrity he was interviewing without offending them. It also reminds us of a time when comedy had to be less concerned with political correctness. One of Humphries’ many achievements was to make Dame Edna as outrageous and daring on her TV talk shows in the 80’s as she was on stage.

This show is very much for the many fans of his that he has accumulated over the decades. The audience on Sunday reflected that, with very few of them being under the age of fifty. Judging by the fact that he extended his upcoming West End run, there are clearly plenty more eager to see him. This comeback performance (he announced his ‘official’ retirement from live performance in 2012) is very welcome during what has been an exceptionally difficult time for theatres everywhere. Overall, an evening of pure entertainment.

Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask tours through 27 May.

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