EdnaLong before Nigella Lawson declared herself to be a domestic goddess, there was Dame Edna Everage. Barrie Humphries’ new show, Back with a Vengeance celebrates 50 years of performing Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. At 73 years old, Humphries is in remarkably good form. He remains a prodigious talent. While Sir Les and Sandy Stone are still fresh, Dame Edna lacks some of the satirical bite and depth of character that made her a megastar.

Dame Edna is a household name and universally loved. Just as Kath and Kim documents contemporary suburban culture, Barry Humphries portrays Australian suburbia of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. When he began, his audacious, larrikin spirit encouraged us to laugh at ourselves and possibly even reflect on how we might be seen by others.

Sandy Stone, as always, steals the show, probably because his character is allowed greater dramatic depth than Sir Les or the Dame. Though the least recognised of his characters, Stone benefits from some of the most humourous and poignant writing in the show.  Sandy Stone’s delivery is a little sprightlier than in previous shows.  He nevertheless conveys a sense of nostalgic melancholy, with the right mix of humour and pathos, that has always endeared him to audiences. Pre-occupied with the terrible issues of old age, memory loss and the ignominies of being in care, Humphries’ humour is at its best. 

Humphries’ ability to acutely articulate the iconic suburban minutiae has been the cornerstone of his success with all his characters. In Back with a Vengeance, Humphries’ ability to incorporate modern material, if not modern social issues, is as sharp as his delivery. Everyone’s a target: Kim Beazley, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Alan Moss and more. The awful Les Patterson plotting with the ghost of Kerry Packer to replace Eddie McGuire as the head of Channel Nine, something that had not yet happened on the opening night of the show, is hysterical.

The second act is given over to Edna and, unfortunately, it is not nearly as strong as the first. Edna’s routine is polished and her jokes are very funny, yet again proving what a good writer and social observer Humphries is. Too much of the second act, however, is given over to audience participation. Everage handles this section like an old Butlins holiday camp performer. It is charming and at times very funny – but old fashioned and way too long.

A contemporary audience can appreciate the historical context of Sir Les and Sandy Stone. The sexism and outrageous racism of Sir Les and Sandy satirise the provincialism and bigotry of the post war generation. Now an international megastar, the character of Dame Edna no longer satirises the domestic gaucheness of the suburban housewife. So what does she satirise now?

As consummate a performer as Humphries is, the overriding impression is the strength of his writing and his powers of observation. When this isn’t central to the performance (as the case of the second part of Act 2) it is not nearly as interesting.

To a sophisticated, 21st century, multicultural Australian audience Dame Edna’s relentless double entendres can be tiresome. What seemed to be audacious 50 years ago now seems just a little “Danny La Rue”. Comedy has moved on in the last 50 years. Instead of Humphries pointing the finger at the Australian lack of sophistication, it was Dame Edna’s line of humour that appeared gauche. The choreography and costuming of the Ednaettes and TestEdnarones fell short of being ironic and was corny and passé.

The main value of Back with a Vengeance is as a window into the past – something that has always been Barry Humphries’ main concern – with the additional dimension that this could well be the last opportunity to see Humphries live in performance.

However sad that prospect is, given Humphries’ enormous contribution over the years, it’s also apparent that, whilst he is still loveable, charming and witty, Back with a Vengeance is missing contemporary observation about social minutiae – something that was once Humphries’ trademark.

Back With A Vengeance
Barry Humphries and Friends

Venue: Capitol Theatre
Dates: Wednesday 16th May – June 3, 2007.
Tickets: from $67.90* to $84.40*
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au

Most read Sydney reviews

Piano Mill’s success has been due to it offering an alternative means of experiencing fresh,...

Real estate is just dirt, when you boil it right down, and Mamet’s pedlars of property sure are...

The behaviour of the men is misogynous. The behaviour of men in authority menacing. The...

Proof that Shakespeare can shake up lives and his plays hold a mirror to life, The Twins sees...