Barry Humphries brings a collection of his best loved characters to The Grand Theatre this month as part of his farewell show, Eat Pray Laugh.
Humphries began his career at the Melbourne Theatre Company in the 1950s, developing among other characters the acerbic Edna Everage, back then only a Mrs. He headed to Britain at the beginning of the 1960s, coinciding with the new wave of satirical comedy which included collaborations with Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Peter Cook. It was a time when a new form of character-based comedy was evolving, with comic personas emerging between straight stand-up and theatrical farce. Humphries’ richly textured and outrageously outspoken characters made him an instant hit with the British public, and by the 1980s Dame Edna had become an institution hosting several television series. She was no longer a character, but a celebrity in her own right.
After over sixty-five years in the business Humphries has declared that Eat Pray Laugh is to be the final outing for his celebrated creations. Part cabaret-revue and part monologue, the show is an opportunity to experience first hand the characters many will have enjoyed on the small screen, with some lesser known faces in-between.
Slobbering bigot Les Patterson is the first personality, introduced during the pilot of his cooking programme. Characteristically repugnant and wholly disgusting, his engagement with the audience is nothing less than intense, somewhat threatening and deliciously base. He has the ability to offend all who take his words at face value, whilst the sudden intake of breath heard by those shocked by his vulgarity serve to make it all the funnier. Be warned though: those lucky enough to be on the few front rows will be in literal spitting distance of the man.
A relatively new creation is Father Gerard Patterson, Les’ less-repulsive but somewhat sinister homosexual brother who is an effective attack on the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Bald, bucktoothed and sycophantic, Father Gerard is a monstrous mix between Patterson and Uncle Fester. With overtones of the grotesques which The League of Gentlemen and Steve Coogan would go on to create, it’s obvious now how much this brand of humour was pioneered and established by Humphries.
Punctuated by occasional snappy musical numbers with Nick Len on piano and animated by an athletic dance team, Eat Pray Laugh is buttressed with plenty of showmanship and spectacle. There are also some wonderfully executed stunts by Jack Jefferson, doubling for Humphries in some large-scale pratfalls. The cast is small – no more than seven performers – but like Humphries’ characters the show has depth and scope due to the writing, with skilful direction by Simon Phillips.
An outrageously funny opening act closes with the beautifully directed monologue of Sandy Stone – a old man, now deceased, who reflects on his life before departing on a cloud. Comparable to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Humphries is captivating in his delivery and the dialogue sparkles with evocative detail and emotion. It is a reminder that, behind the vulgarities of Les Patterson or the caustic wit of Dame Edna, the keystone which makes these characters so fascinating is the performer’s masterful technique of marrying humour with pathos and pace.
The entirety of the second act is dedicated to Dame Edna Everage as she muses on everything from visiting her lesbian daughter to introducing her new Indian boyfriend. Like all of Humphries’ characters, Dame Edna is more than simply a costume character or drag act; the use of language is so eloquent and observations so acute that the whole ensemble is that of a genuine personality on stage. Importantly, the gag is never on the fact that Humphries is in drag, but rather that the character herself is a campy, arrogant, warm-hearted diva. There is a real sense that Dame Edna and her glittery world legitimately exists.
Dame Edna’s musings are highly entertaining and Humphries’ monologues remain superlative, however the character is at her most electrifying when engaging with the audience. Casting furtive sideways glances and asides whilst superficially ridiculing, she coasts a fine line between cheek and outright rudeness – or as she calls it, “ass-burgers syndrome”. Whether it be probing somebody for their curious choice of hairstyle, or asking how much their discount blouse cost, the veiled insults always remain superficial. Well out of the firing line, the onslaught provides a devilish pleasure, forcing audiences to watch awkwardly through their fingers.
Fundamentally a one man show with sprinkles of glitter, grime and pathos, Eat Pray Laugh not only celebrates an on-going legacy of exceptional character comedy, it showcases the skill of one of the world’s finest orators and humourists. Uplifting, salacious, dangerous and extraordinarily funny, Eat Pray Laugh is a reluctant but triumphant farewell to a remarkable performer and his body of work.
Eat Pray Laugh is a Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 1st March. It transfers to the Manchester Opera House on Tuesday 4th – Saturday 8th March 2014.