The sad tale of a rare Humphries failure

Barry Humphries began his first UK tour in over 10 years last Tuesday, appearing at the Royal Albert Hall in Last Night of the Poms, a musical extravaganza in which Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage performed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the 100-or-so-strong Brighton Festival Chorus. The show was originally performed in the early 80s in both the UK and Australia, where it reportedly went down well. Unfortunately for Humphries, the same cannot be said for this revival, with the show receiving a critical panning from newspapers such as The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, as well as freebie rag thelondonpaper and the comedy website Chortle. As someone who was in the audience last Tuesday, I agree with almost everything the critics said. While Sir Les and Dame Edna’s opening monologues at the beginning of each half of the show were hilarious, the musical aspect of the show was disappointingly laugh-free.

Sir Les presented Peter and the Shark, a very close pastiche of Prokofieff’s Peter and the Wolf, in which surfie Peter captures a shark which had been menacing swimmers on Effluent Beach, while Dame Edna performed Song of Australia – a cantata exploring the history of Australia, from the dawn of creation to contemporary times. Despite the comic potential of both pieces, the lyrics barely raised a smile. The only light relief came when the music was paused to allow Sir Les to make a few comic asides, or Dame Edna to answer a phone call from Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. That Barry Humphries would base his long-awaited UK return around two lengthy pieces which did not contain funny lyrics is utterly extraordinary – what a waste of the considerable talents of composer and conductor Carl Davis, whose music, at least, was excellent.

A live recording of the show made in Melbourne in March 1983 (which I found on sale for $10 in bargain bin outside an Adelaide branch of Sanity last year, but did not listen to until last Thursday) provoked exactly the same reaction. Sir Les and Dame Edna’s opening monologues, peppered with references to the recent election of Bob Hawke and full of typically barbed interactions with the audience, were hilarious, and the music – performed by the Australian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Ashton Smith Singers – sounded stunning. Audience laughter, however, was fairly muted for the lyrics, and it was only when Sir Les or Dame Edna paused for an interlude – of which there were a few more than in last Tuesday’s show – that the big laughs came. Interludes and asides – and plenty of them – are probably the one way to make this show work without a major re-write of the lyrics.

While there has been no indication that Last Night of the Poms will be revived in Australia, Humphries will appear in several music-based shows in December in Sydney and Melbourne. These will see Sir Les, Dame Edna and the Australian Chamber Orchestra perform “show tunes, jazz, Australiana, pop and classical music”. Top price tickets in Sydney are $95, and $133.55 in Melbourne but, if the show’s anything like Last Night of the Poms, there will be walk outs – in London, about a sixth of those who had top price stalls tickets [£65] left before the curtain call. Humphries’ audiences are used to a lightly humorous song or two appearing in his act, but a whole show based around serious music could prove to be a big disaster.

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