Barry Humphries at Richmond Theatre review: A stripped down masterclass of witty anecdotes
At one point during The Man Behind The Mask Barry Humphries makes a joke about The Antiques Roadshow. It is an unwittingly apt aside. At 88 years old Humphries is something of an antique himself, although judging by his latest performance onstage still in remarkably good condition.
For this tour Humphries has, mostly, abandoned his most famous comic characters and has chosen to reveal himself instead. We are told that we will discover who he really is. And we do, to a degree, in a stripped down anecdote masterclass. To spend two hours in the company of Humphries is akin to being a lucky guest at a particularly witty one-man dinner party.
He clearly has plenty of tales to tell. The first hour barely gets from his childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell to the end of the 1950s when he set sail for England. He had tried his hand at acting, playing Orsino in Twelfth Night, but felt he did not have the legs for drama. The director said “you’re naturally ridiculous,” so Humphries pivoted into comedy and the rest is history.
The biographical structure gathered pace as we heard how Edna Everage went from Moonee Ponds to global superstar. Humphries briefly donned a pair of Edna’s butterfly winged spectacles and you could feel the pure joy in the theatre. Some clips of Everage’s TV highlights, gatecrashing the Prince of Wales in the royal box or chillingly calling Boris Johnson a future Prime Minister back in 2007 almost upstaged the in-the-flesh raconteur.
But Humphries is so engaging that he soon pulled the focus back onto him, whether holding court at the front of the stage or reminiscing in his leather armchair. Occasional tinkling from pianist Ben Dawson provided genteel backing, but this was all very much about Humphries.
If there was a quibble it was that he maybe exposed himself a little less than advance publicity promised. There was, however, a moving confession of how he stopped drinking – “put the cork in the bottle” – 53 years ago and replaced a “boozy blur” with happiness. Shortly before then he had discovered a hangover cure called a “grappling hook” involving port and brandy. No wonder things were a blur.
This is not the kind of show that will win Humphries new fans, but I doubt if that is the intention. Apart from a few quips about being cancelled it hardly has a contemporary edge, but there is much here to enjoy. Despite his age he suggests that this is anything but a farewell lap of honour. The tone is certainly anything but valedictory. This antique’s roadshow could run and run.
Also May 29, June 5 & 12. Gielgud Theatre, W1 (manbehindthemask.co.uk)