“You couldn’t write that,” said the guy in the seat next to me at Tuesday night’s opening of Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour, in town for a week (closing April 26th) at the National Theatre.
The remark was made as the audience roared after one of Dame Edna Everage’s characteristic hat-tricks. She had chatted with a couple audience members, then veered onto the subject of herself, then moved onto another audience member, and then jumped on an unexpected opportunity to tie it all together with a perfectly-timed, expertly-delivered, and of-the-specific-moment quip.
A lot of what is impressive and delightful about Dame Edna is the spontaneity of her act. The show resists traditional theatre criticism, as it will vary substantially from night to night. Perhaps some nights the soufflé won’t rise as impressively as it did the night I saw the show. I expect that it will, though. After all, none of the holes she drilled Tuesday night were dry. She may be on the last legs of the farewell tour, but all the instincts are as sharp now as ever.
In addition to her live shows and TV appearances, Dame Edna has written some books and has also been the subject of a few, including one by the esteemed critic (and recent Tennessee Williams biographer) John Lahr. I haven’t read that book, but I did read Lahr’s profile of Dame Edna in The New Yorker. In it, Lahr made the case that Dame Edna is unparalleled in her talent for riffing off of whatever she is given by the audience on any given night — and Lahr, son of one of the great comedic stage stars of the last century, knows a thing or two about the art of comedy.
Drag is now somewhat mainstreamed. It even has its own reality competition on TV. A hallmark of the form, though, has always been quick-wittedness. Whether watching a queen host an event at a small club, or whether hearing RuPaul declare “the library is open” on Drag Race, we expect wit, realness, playfulness — and, importantly, humor that is self-deprecating enough that it keeps it from crossing a line and becoming cruel. And we expect to feel that satisfying sense that tonight’s laughs are unique to tonight. Could it be that, at every show, there is an African-American audience member who doesn’t shimmy his gladiola very well, provoking a line about how he has just punctured a widely-held myth? I want to hope not!
You always wonder just how much of the show is teed-up in advance. During the second act, when two audience members are brought up to the stage, I wondered if there had been any sort of pre-screening. The two — Nancy and (particularly) Jack — seemed very at-ease, and provided a few laughs themselves, and then there was the on-stage phone call to Jack’s father in Nebraska, who answered the call. Was it all luck, or was there a little bit of prep involved?
It would be really interesting to see the show twice in a row in the hope of learning just how much that seems spontaneous may actually be calculated. Certainly the material Dame E mines from the details that she elicits from audience members is freshly-minted. (When you see the show, try to chose a performance when someone in a front row lives in Tyson’s Corner.) Certainly the musings that tie together the ad-libs with the audience must be somewhat rehearsed. Absolutely it all feels so crisp that we realize we are in extremely skilled hands indeed.
Dame Edna, our program reveals, is played by the Australian Barry Humphries, who created the character (believe it or not) sixty years ago. (Humphries also plays a sort-of male counterpart to Dame Edna, Sir Les Patterson, but poor Sir Les hasn’t enjoyed the international success of Dame Edna.) The other fun thing about the show is that it feels as if Humphries also connects us to a wonderful tradition of British music hall comedy. Vaudeville may be dead, but a show like this has its roots in that sort of performance style.
It must be said that this is not a one-person show. Dame Edna is traveling with an ensemble of four singer-dancers (Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux, and Armando Yearwood, Jr.). A lady never reveals her age, but Wikipedia says that the Dame is over eighty, so it’s no surprise that during the musical numbers, she is mostly stationary while the ensemble dances all around her. And they do so impressively — they are a charismatic quartet. The on-stage accompanist, Jonathan Tessero, is also the Musical Director, and he helped Dame Edna a couple of times with the local place names with which an international star of her stature would likely be unfamiliar. The evening has a Director as well: Simon Phillips keeps the (slightly more than) two hours traffic of our stage feeling as if it is flying by surprisingly quickly. Oh, did I mention that Hugh Jackman is in the show? Well, he’s in a taped introduction. Later on, clips of Dame Edna interviewing other big stars — Joan Rivers, Cher, etc., etc. — is also played.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that, as this is indeed the farewell tour, we were treated to a very special goodbye at the show’s end. If you are a fan of Dame Edna, or if you have always wanted to see her on-stage, you won’t want to miss this last chance tour, and you won’t soon forget its poignant — dare I say historic? — finale.
Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour . Directed by Simon Phillips . starring Barry Humphries with Ralph Coppola, Brooke Pascoe, Eve Prideaux, and Armando Yearwood, Jr . Musical Director: Jonathan Tessero . Produced by Dainty Group International . Presented by the National Theatre . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.