NEW EDNA THE SPECTACLE
Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 21 April, 1998

Reviewing Julian Clary's show late last year, I expressed surprise and relief that Clary, when mocking his audience, was not as cruel or humiliating as Dame Edna Everage. On finally seeing the housewife megastar herself on stage, I felt surprise, relief and also a little disappointment that, well, neither is Dame Edna any more. She may accuse one punter of smelling like a week-old J cloth, she may question couples in minute detail about their babysitting arrangements whilst they are in the Haymarket stalls... but the audience Schadenfreude which Edna can still muster is directed, not at the embarrassing titbits which punters are wheedled to reveal, but simply at the fact that they are coming in for such lengthy attention. (On the press night one woman, overjoyed to be picked out, was quickly dispatched in favour of more fertile cringe material.) Interestingly, the sequence in which she seems most fully liberated to snipe involves preying upon a victim not physically present, as she telephones one of the previously identified babysitters; also interestingly, Clary had used precisely the same device several months ago. Who may have nicked what from whom, or whether this is simply a prop gag whose time has come, I have no idea.

The classic Edna approach "Verbal Intercourse", as the programme has it is displayed only after the interval. That other Barry Humphries creation, Sir Les Patterson as vile, droolsome, and to me unfathomable in his appeal as ever ("I've never hit Row G before!" he announces proudly after one prize splutter) introduces the first half of the three-hour show, consisting of "Musical Foreplay", in which an amnesiac Edna is regressed not only to her own childhood but to her forebears' era. Some of Kit Hesketh-Harvey's lyrics are deliciously streaked with artificial colouring unlike the Everage hair, which is quite natural: "Why am I mauve?/What is it I lack?" bemoans her several-greats-grandmother in song; "Where'er I rove/I come out lilac" (the great Australian patriotic WW2 song, too, hymns those twin commodities, spunk and phlegm) others merely serviceable. It is an unprecedented treat to see prostate martyr Norm Everage on stage, even in his younger incarnation, and some light is thrown on that complicated relationship of Edna with her bridesmaid Madge Allsop (who, in adult form, also gets her brief moment in the spotlight).

But what we want is the celebrated Humphries acidity. Strangely, some of its finest appearances pass most of us by: when Humphries appeared as Rupert Murdoch, and even managed to slip in a topical gag about his marital separation, an opening-night audience which included Conrad Black, David Frost and Andrew Neil remained strangely muted. Dame Edna herself appears trapped in a three-way quandary: either stick with material which has proven successful in the past but whose edge is now blunted by familiarity, be seen to be taking possibly too much of a back seat as in the musical first half, or raise the stakes as with the kitsch canonisation of the finale to a level which looks excessive even in an Everage context.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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