My gladdie lies before me on the train seat as I write, wilting gently. I doubt I shall throw it away, for the opening night of Barry Humphries’ farewell UK tour is poignant. My brother Mike and I have seen every one of Dame Edna’s West End appearances since 1969 (her bizarre Albert Hall concerto four years ago and the panto debut at Wimbledon were interludes in a 15-year gap between full shows). When it all began we were young, and the Edna character was just an opinionated Moonee Ponds housewife in upswept glasses, but some things endure. On that night 44 years ago, knees less creaky than now obeyed the command to “Stand and tremble!” the gladioli the muscular Edna hurled at us. Tonight we did it again.
As years rolled by Humphries has elevated her to megastar status, with wilder gowns and sparklier glasses. The legendary targeting of the audience became ever more terrifying: last time we were in Row E, and cowered as rows behind and ahead of us were mercilessly questioned. This time – inspired by a self-absorbed bestseller – Edna arrives on a jewelled elephant and claims to have been in a celebrity ashram, with the Dalai Lama and Sharon Osbourne booked in under false names and “little Stephen Fry. Booked in as Stephen Fry”. There’s the traditional verbal strafing of the front rows: “You’ve come dressed for the occasion. Not this occasion, obviously. Cleaning the car. Or assisting a family pet to give birth”. This culminates in the claim that she is licenced to conduct Punjabi weddings and the singling out of an earringed youth and elderly lady, strangers, as bride and groom. Reports from previews say Edna targets gay men to improve the joke: on press night, nimble as ever, on discovering that the victim had a wife at home in Kent she rang her to break the news of the remarriage and broadcast her baffled bedtime replies over the loudspeakers.
Cruel? Not really. The immense, self-aware persona rises above that, mocking her very mockery: she is the archetype of every waspish female relative who has punctured our self-esteem since childhood. But this time we can laugh. And as a seasoned Ednologist I have to say that there is a softness now, a dilution of the basilisk glare, which is not entirely due to the light of nostalgia.
I write of Edna, and the second half is hers. But Humphries’ first half is just as skilled. Sir Les Patterson, no longer “cultural attaché” but wannabe TV chef, amiably repulsive as ever, makes ‘fusion barbie’ rissoles, spitting, vanishing noisily into the dunnee and telling an apparently pointless, maundering senile anecdote culminating in the rudest joke of the year. Briefly replaced by his (newly invented and near-the-knuckle) gay clerical brother, he undergoes a coup de theatre to become Sandy Stone, the mournful old suburban ghost reflecting on a lost child long ago. Some jib at this deliberate lowering of the energy and acknowledgement of grief, but in character comedy it always feels like the ultimate act of theatrical courage and bravura: saying “I have the skill to make you cry. It’s just my choice, tonight, to make you laugh”.
I like that. After the final climactic waving of massed gladdies Edna becomes a mere projection and Barry Humphries walks on as himself, 79 years old, to say goodbye. We stay on our feet in something close to awe. And in sadness, nimbly punctured by a sardonic “Promise to come to my next farewell tour”. One can only hope.