Barry Humphries takes off the mask at last in confessional show in York
BARRY Humphries will reveal The Man Behind The Mask at the Grand Opera House, York, on April 13.
This one-man show comes fully eight years after his supposedly valedictory Yorkshire visit in February 2014, when the creator of Dame Edna Everage presented Eat Pray Laugh!, Barry Humphries' Farewell Tour at Leeds Grand Theatre.
Now, in the only Yorkshire show of his 2022 tour, the veteran Australian actor, comedian, satirist, artist, author and national treasure will take a revelatory trip through his colourful life and theatrical career in an intimate, confessional evening, seasoned with highly personal, sometimes startling and occasionally outrageous stories of Dame Edna et al.
Peeling off his mask at the age of 88 to introduce the man behind the clown, Humphries says: "This is a show in which I am the principal character; it's not Les [Sir Les Patterson], it's not Edna, it's not Sandy Stone. It is really about this character called 'me'. I'm not in disguise."
Superstar Melbourne housewife Dame Edna's sequined frocks and uncouth Sydney cultural attaché Sir Les's food-spattered ties may make cameo appearances or "interruptions" in film clips, but the primary focus will be on Humphries relating anecdotes and observations from life on and off stage.
"Frankly, I thought it would be a little easier. No need to dress up," he says. "I've had a lot of extremely interesting, colourful, scary, joyous experiences in my life and I'm quite good with audiences."
Humphries premiered The Man Behind The Mask in Australia, where it was "very, very successful". "In a way, it was my out-of-town try-out. Now I'm bringing it here," he says. "I've written the whole show plus a new song called Alone At Last, which would bring a tear to a glass eye.'"
When he appears at the Grand Opera House next Wednesday, Humphries will be setting foot on stage for the first time in nearly three years. Is he scared? "Oh no, I'll get back in the groove very quickly," he asserts.
Reflecting on returning to the stage at 88, Humphries says: "Yes, but it's not as though I'm going to pass away mid-performance like poor Tommy Cooper. But is it brave? On the contrary, I've always thought of myself as quite cowardly. The sound of a cricket bat hitting a ball invariably causes me to duck."
First and foremost, Humphries' show is a comedy. "The most important thing is to get that first laugh. Then I'll be back in my comfort zone," he says.
It was ever thus. After working in the wholesale department at EMI in his native Melbourne for a year in his late teens, he was taken on by Australia's only touring repertory theatre company and was cast as Prince Orsino in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night. "Or should I say miscast? I had to wear tights and, when I walked on stage, I thought I heard a titter running round the audience," recalls Humphries.
"Immediately, I tried to disguise the bottom half of my body. After three performances, the director said that my entrance was terrible. Why was I skulking behind the furniture?
"I explained that I thought my legs were ruining this serious play. He assured me his wife was of the opinion that I had very good legs, but then he added: 'You must realise as an actor that you're naturally ridiculous'."
"Naturally ridiculous", Barry? "Now, some people might regard that as a bit of an insult. I was 18 at the time and it could have shaken my confidence, but it didn't," says Humphries. "What it made me realise was that I was in the wrong department of theatre. Whether I liked it or not, I belonged in comedy."
At the time, he considered himself to be a painter, mostly of landscapes, but caricatures too. Once at university, however, he began writing sketches for revues in the style of Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan.
'Later on, I tried my hand at writing about what was in front of me," Humphries says. "No-one at the time wrote about Australia in general and the suburbs in particular."
Come the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956, the repertory company director decided to present a revue and asked the 22-year-old Humphries to contribute material.
"There weren't enough hotel rooms in the city, so people were encouraged to let international athletes stay in their spare rooms, so I wrote a sketch about a housewife called Edna who invited a muscular sportsman into her home," he recalls.
In that first incarnation, Edna was "rather shy, very suburban, a little dowdy". "But, in time, that changed. It was as though she started to assert herself," says Humphries. "I'd wake up one day and she'd acquired those trademark glasses. Her confidence grew. Suddenly, there was an invalid husband, Norm; a gay son; a delinquent daughter, a silent bridesmaid, Madge.
"She took on a life of her own. It was as though she'd started writing her own script. I'd be on the side, observing with some admiration, Edna's quips."
Nevertheless, by the early 1960s, Humphries decided that Edna had run her course. "But no, she proved indestructible, and she's turned out to be a very useful mouthpiece," he says now. "She can say things, for instance, about political correctness that I couldn't possibly express."
Once blighted by a serious alcoholic illness for more than ten years. Humphries has not touched a drop for 50 years. His long-held philosophy is to live in the present. "That's a very hard thing to do but a very good spiritual exercise," he says.
Amen to that.
Barry Humphries, The Man Behind The Mask, Grand Opera House, York, April 13, 7.30pm, with an opportunity for audience questions. Tickets update: Still available on 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york.
By Charles Hutchinson and Richard Barber