The television chatshow spread to theatre as a way of getting stars on stage without the burden of rehearsal or line-learning. John Cleese and Joan Collins are among those who have tried this form of sit-down comedy, now followed by Barry Humphries, who talked to Rob Brydon for two hours on Sunday night at the London Palladium.
The giving of top billing to Brydon suggested an attempt to draw the younger Welshman’s audience to the Australian elder. On visual evidence, most of those present had been following Humphries since Dame Edna Everage, his greatest character, was a plain Melbourne Mrs.
Two wicker chairs on stage were divided by a vast arrangement of gladioli, Dame Edna’s go-to flower. A large screen above them showed clips of the senior speaker’s favourite comedians including the Marx Brothers, Eddie Murphy, Little Britain and, conveniently for the evening’s conceit, the sitcom Gavin and Stacey, featuring Brydon.
This element of comic masterclass suggested a safety net in case the talk stalled, but the extracts rapidly became a distraction, as Brydon’s questions were generously structured to cue set-piece highlights from his guest’s own back catalogue. Humphries wore maroon trousers and matching socks, with a black velvety blazer, but without costume, skilfully shaped the anecdotes to include a few minutes in the voice of Dame Edna, and almost a quarter-hour as Australian cultural attache Sir Les Patterson, during a story of Humphries misjudging the tolerance for filth of a charity audience at Lord’s cricket ground.
The question of appropriate language arose in another way. The Melbourne international comedy festival has just decided that its main prize will no longer be called the Barry award, in protest at Humphries’ comments, in interviews since 2016, on transgender equality. Brydon didn’t mention the controversy directly, nor was it included among the questions from the audience (written on cards in the bar at the interval) selected as a finale. Two ticket-holders, in my hearing, claimed to have put in a question about the re-naming of the Barry.
There was a possible hint of contrition when Humphries complained that the chosen clip from Little Britain, in which the punchline is Emily “I’m a Ladee!” Howard standing at a urinal, was “probably the least funny thing in the series”. Matt Lucas, co-writer and co-star of the scene, shouted out, “I agree!”, from the stalls.
But the rest of the evening suggested that Humphries intends to defend the right to offend. In the Sir Les section, the diplomat described his semen as “gender fluid”, and Humphries referred to a meeting with a showbiz executive being “so long ago that his wife was a woman”.
While greater leeway should be given to an unscripted and unpractised show, Humphries sometimes lacked the lethal verbal precision of his peak work. There was a feeling that he was having a pre-season practice to test his form and fitness, and there was enough of both to retain his reputation as a comedy great. It was unclear if the apparently casual revelation of Dame Edna’s next state visit to Britain “around next Easter” was planned, or a spontaneous response to hearing waterfalls of laughter and applause cascading down the tiers of the Palladium auditorium.
A complication to the Melbourne diva’s comeback, as Brydon pointed out, is that she retired six years ago. But enough real showbiz figures, including Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, have made more than one farewell tour. And, from the unrepentant evidence of Sunday night, Humphries’ detractors should be ready for that show to include the cross-dressing comedian’s take on transgender politics.