Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask – Review – York Grand Opera House
By Roger Crow, April 2022
Most of the generation of entertainers that millions grew up with in the seventies and eighties have now left us, but for me at least, Barry Humphries has been that constant comedy force.
As a kid I laughed at his Dame Edna; the OTT hairdo, spangly dresses, and the ornate specs which overshadowed even Elton John. That’s the thing about self-confessed megastars: they become the very thing they purport to be.
By the 1990s, I was late to the Les Patterson party, but he became another comedy icon with his buck teeth, stained suits and boozy tendencies. That wry smile and catchphrase “Are you with me?” never ceased to generate a smile.
As the years went by I realised there was so much more to Humphries than just a couple of extraordinary alter egos. The man was little short of a comedy genius, and I don’t use that phrase lightly. There are many so-called funny people working today who claim to be comedians, but who couldn’t raise a giggle without flooding a theatre with laughing gas.
Upon discovering Barry was launching a UK tour, I couldn’t get tickets fast enough, then moved heaven and Earth to ensure I could go. Getting a Wednesday night off work is tricky at best, so I booked the week off. It was that important.
On one of those idyllic spring evenings, Barry finally arrives on stage at the Grand Opera House; it feels like the venue and the performer were meant to be together. Yes, he could have gone to one of those newer build venues, but as one of York’s finest theatres, it’s quite right that he’s simpatico with his surroundings.
The set is simple, yet very memorable: a piano; a comfortable chair: a rug and a small table for his glass of water. Oh, and a video screen set in one of those ornate gold frames. The carpet receives a clean before things begin, and the frame gets a dusting. And then Barry is on stage, and there’s a round of applause that lasts an age. And rightly so.
For the rest of the night he entertains the packed theatre with a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes. There are tales about his childhood, his family, and naturally we discover how he came up with the embryonic version of Edna, and the beta version of Les.
There are clips of some of Edna’s finest TV moments, the stuff I hadn’t seen for years that is still laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll not reveal too much, but the guests’ reactions are a delight. Always a little odd to watch old TV clips when the man behind the magic is actually there on stage. But that’s Edna all over: stealing the spotlight from everyone, especially her creator.
Barry Humphries has always been one of the smartest entertainers in showbusiness, as he proved when he appeared on an ITV morning show recently and made a joke about Dermot O’Leary, allegedly mistaking him for Pip Schofield. Twitter lit up with folks addressing the fact he’d confused Dermot for Phillip, but a deadpan Barry knew exactly what he was doing, and many long-term fans were in on the gag too. It was a phenomenal bit of live TV, and proof that even in his eighties, Humphries is still top of the comedy tree.
For those lucky enough to see the rest of the tour, a couple of bits of advice: don’t fall asleep as one punter did, and don’t cough for five minutes without leaving the theatre. Not unless you want to have a comedy maestro use it as impromptu material for part of the show.
And full marks to the Opera House staff for stopping anyone filming the event, even if at one point they accidentally became part of Barry’s act during a closing number.
“Bedrock of showbusiness”
In an age when many performers are terrified of being cancelled for saying the wrong thing, it’s refreshing to see a light entertainment deity just not care, but without being offensive about the fact. Barry is also refreshingly frank about some of the darker times of his life, and very few greats can dig up comedy gold without enduring moments of darkness.
By the end of the night, Barry dispenses gladioli to a lucky few, and there’s a lovely tribute to Edna’s comedy stooge, Madge. Though there seems like a disconnect that he’s paying tribute and not Edna, it’s a reminder of how successful Dame Everage was, and is; a self-contained character who brilliantly sent up some of the world’s biggest showbiz stars, and managed to reduce many to fits of giggles with one look and that rib-tickling moue. Nobody ever pouted to such fine comedic effect.
It’s a bittersweet gig, mainly because I wished I’d seen Barry decades earlier, but while savouring every moment, I keep getting flashbacks to a walk around Sydney Harbour in 2018 and one of those floor plaques paying tribute to Aussie greats, including you know who. Barry’s so embedded in the bedrock of showbusiness, it’s hard to imagine a world without him.
Apologies for gushing like Old Faithful, but as a lover of great comedy, this is one of those gigs that ticks a very big box.
It’s not every day you get to spend two-plus hours in the company of a comedy icon, but Barry Humphries is all that and more. To be part of that standing ovation he richly deserves isn’t just a reward for that evening, but for the decades of laughter I’ve enjoyed, and on behalf of family no longer with me who shared those countless Edna-inspired laughs.
There may be nothing like a Dame, and there is also nothing in this world like Barry Humphries. What a treat.