Barry Humphries’ acerbic Dame Edna Everage, now a household name Stateside, was just one of an extensive gallery of heinous characters dusted off for his well-named “Back to My Roots” tour of Australia.
The poison-tongued Les Patterson, an Australian attache in Baghdad with a penchant for reading Playboy, wearing a food- and booze-splattered pale blue suit (acquired circa 1970) and spitting generously with every sentence, showered the front rows with saliva from the minute he slunk onto the stage.
In Sydney on compassionate leave, Les peddled his trademark bigotries — against women, gays, anybody of any racial background not his own.
New character Dr. Owen Steele, a “pillar of Australian corporate life,” failed to fire. Steele and his crumbling empire were born out of recent local insurance scandals FAI, HIH and telco One-Tel, but could be easily adapted for Enron or Worldcom. His annual CEO address to shareholders of the Integrity Australia Insurance Group, though amusing, never really built momentum.
Next, Humphries emceed a homevideo projected onto the back of the stage. Fifty-year-old clips of children at a birthday party, leafy streetscapes and other suburban goings-on from Humphries’ childhood were accompanied by his trademark wry observations, at once scathing and a little sentimental. This segment, loaded with poignancies for Melbournians, nevertheless resonated with the Sydney audience.
Aussies have observed Dame Edna’s ascension in the U.S. in recent years with a mixture of pride and sheer horror: Despite the former suburban housewife’s massive popular appeal at home, the thought that she’s waving the Aussie flag abroad above her trademark forked tongue is sometimestoo much to bear.
Act two was all Edna. Wearing a new frock by William Goodwin (featuring toy koalas in eucalyptus branches), it began with a video sequence hosted by TV personality Richard Wilkins and featured clips of Edna conquering the U.K. and U.S. talkshow circuit before it cut to “backstage,” where she was surrounded by a bevy of local TV personalities.
She graced the stage shortly after: “The Americans sucked me dry, gave me nothing but awards and money,” she bellowed, though with vocal chords laboring significantly due to what sounded like a flu. Flanked by the high-kicking Ednaettes (Giovanna Fragomeli, Kym Johnson) and accompanied on piano by Andrew Ross, her schtick contained plenty of contemporary local material, which was impressive given Humphries’ hectic international touring schedule, plus the fact that it has been four years since he last toured Oz and he has not been based here in years.
The routine was a blend of musical numbers and chat, with Edna savaging one audience “senior” after another, eventually corralling them onto the stage to play-act a pivotal scene from her own life. A high point was an impromptu “marriage counseling” session for one hapless couple, with Edna phoning the woman’s surprised elderly mother-in-law; her husband could be heard wheezing into his respirator in the background.