Is this really the last time we will see Barry Humphries and Dame Edna on tour? Is this the first of a series of farewell tours or are we about to lose an national treasure (albeit adopted from Australia) from our screens and stages? It seems unthinkable.
The show at the Hippodrome starts with an appearance by Australian Cultural Attaché Les Patterson, who is greeted warmly by the audience as he attempts to carve out a new career as a TV food guru (‘Australia's answer to Nigella Lawson'). Many will disagree, but for this reviewer a little of Les' scatological humour goes a long way, and defying political correctness is a little tired as a comedy strategy, though some quips still hit home. We meet Les' dubious clergyman brother Gerard, then the first half concludes with a monologue by another long standing Humphries character, Sandy Stone, addressing us from the afterlife. This part of the evening is surprisingly melancholic, reflecting on the sadness of old age with its indignities and injustices. Humphries clearly has much affection for this character and there is a tender sentimentality in the scene, almost Dickensian. Poignant, but not really what the audience came for. The piece includes some unnecessary digs at ‘foreign' care workers that let slip Humphries' own deep and old fashioned conservatism. By the interval we are ready for the star of the show.
The second half springs to welcome life with Edna's entrance on an elephant, looking like The Queen, only more glamorous and with a purple rinse. Her skilfully cruel interrogations of hapless members of the front few rows are the highlight of the night as Britishness is put on the dissecting table. The Dame walks the stage, eyeing up the crowd like a great white shark looking for victims; no one down there is safe. Class distinctions are exposed to the spotlight, details of private lives are dug out and held up to gleeful ridicule, and we fall in love with her all over again. We are collectively putty in her elegant hands, right up to the inevitable frenzy of gladioli waving that is her glorious climax. Then off she goes.
The unexpected ending is an appearance by Humphries as himself, reflecting on his career and love of theatre. It suddenly does feel like goodbye from the man, though he teasingly leaves us in doubt.
Dame Edna is a treat as ever, and despite its age, the act is fresher than when it first appeared in Britain in the 1970s. (Looking back at old clips on You Tube confirms that the character has grown ever more convincing and adept in her endearing ability to bully all around her). She eclipses Humphries' other characters and dominates the show. Her impending retirement will leave our lives a shade more dowdy from now on. How will the man from Melbourne live without her?