Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask review – basking in nostalgia

At 88, with almost seven decades of character comedy behind him, “the one character I’ve never fully explored is myself,” says Barry Humphries. With his new touring show, he makes a “stumbling attempt” to do so. The Man Behind the Mask doesn’t dig deeply under the skin of the creator of Dame Edna Everage and the sozzled Les Patterson, both of whom cameo in the show. Nor does it greatly deviate from the template for national-treasure celebs cosily recounting their life stories on stage. One might have wished for more iconoclasm from this great professional gadfly. But at the tail end of an extraordinary career, which spanned several eras and co-starred everyone who’s anyone in 20th century entertainment, who would deny Humphries a bask in nostalgia’s fireside glow?

The impish spirit is still in evidence: Humphries is ever-ready to send up his self-indulgence with a cutting quip, as when he promises us another farewell show next year. In the meantime, this one offers us a slideshow of Humphries’ colonial youth: the architectural styles of 1930s Melbourne; his experiences of bullying and being bullied; and his early stage roles in Shakespeare and Noël Coward. The anecdotes feel arbitrary and are sometimes underpowered. But Humphries is jolly about the meandering nature of proceedings, reassuring his audience with a twinkle that “I wouldn’t insult you with a rehearsed show!”

By the interval, we’ve reached the birth of Dame Edna, formerly Mrs Norm Everage, inspired partly by Humphries’ mum (“a mistress of the vocabulary of discouragement”), and partly by the provincial mayoresses he encounters on a theatre tour. Edna comes to dominate by act two, with screened footage of her starry career, including a prophetic interview with the insufferable young Boris Johnson. These clips are more electrifying than anything that’s happening on stage, but the live show remains gently compelling, as Humphries recounts his decade lost to alcoholism and pays touching tribute to Edna’s silent sidekick Emily Perry, AKA Madge Allsop. It’s an elegiac evening, finally, offset – occasionally, and to droll effect – by the incorrigible instincts of a career provocateur.

Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask is on a UK tour.