Barry Humphries and the ACOIt was an intimate affair, or as intimate as the venue, the Hamer Hall, would allow. Barry Humphries was back on home ground after two nights at the Opera House in ‘provincial’ Sydney. He was here to indulge in a little nostalgia and to air his eccentric tastes in music with the help of his friend Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage were on hand to add their distinctive cultural picks to the mix.

This was an opportunity not only for Humphries to have the backing of a fine orchestra, but it was a chance for Tognetti and the ACO to play rarely (if ever, in the case of Poot’s Jazz Music) played compositions and branch out into blues, jazz and general silliness. This they did with aplomb, rising high to the occasion in Sir Les’s version of Rod Stewart’s hit Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?

The ACO is a brilliant group of young musicians, supplemented for this event by wind and percussion players, under the leadership of violinist Tognetti, who inspires some fast fingering as well as plenty of passion in his fellow string players. They opened the evening with an intricate trilling rendition of Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, setting the bar high for Humphries’s entry.

Humphries regaled us with anecdotes, memories and back-handed insults. He revealed a particular fondness for obscure music of the 1920s. He was fascinated by the influence of jazz and blues on composers of the time, not only Poot, but Ravel, and we were given a sample from his Violin Concerto No 2 - a moody blues movement and a whirlwind finale - handled with elation by Tognetti on violin and his crew.

Of his three manifestations in this performance - Dame Edna the gigastar, Sir Les the social lubricator and Barry Humphries the man himself – Barry Humphries was the least impressive, although it was a treat to see him out of costume, with a touch of vulnerability. Not that he was any less a performer while playing himself, with trademark lank hair and red socks, but the line between fiction and fact was less distinct. Could we believe anything he told us, about his life, his preferences, his musical tastes? But this is his fascination, the offering up of his life as entertainment.

Humphries’s final choice for the first act was an absurdist piece of poetry by Edith Sitwell, set to music by the 21-year-old William Walton in 1922. Façade: An Entertainment is just that, an after-dinner amusement for a group of friends. We were almost transported to the drawing room as Humphries recited the barrage of semi-nonsense, which would have been a lot more entertaining if he had held up the script. As it was, his headphone mike failed to pick up the voice clearly when his head was lowered to the lectern and the rich texture of the words was lost.

Sir Les and Dame Edna are quintessential showstopping personalities that Humphries has refined to the nth degree. Their efforts at singing were of no musical value but had great histrionic impact. Using a handheld mike, they shocked, wooed and insulted the audience to most people’s delight. We sang along to the 1922 classic, the theme to the Dad and Dave radio show, Along the Road to Gundagai and cringed, ogled and applauded as Sir Les hammed up the Humphries’s original Chardonnay, a waltz cum drinking song in supremely bad taste.

Guest pianist Dejan Lazic, who was onstage for Sir Les’s act, was one of the few who looked bemused that such a repellent character was a star attraction. Lazic had a star quality of his own, shining in his performance of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he played with panache and precision, perfectly suited to Rachmaninoff’s outpouring of dramatic and emotional ideas.

The Rhapsody gave Humphries time to recreate Dame Edna from the ravages of Sir Les and she emerged, glorious in a gown of red chiffon, to take the show to its conclusion. Safe in her strong hands – she can throw a gladdy way up into the balcony – we relaxed into the spectator sport of watching the slow immolation of three women who had the temerity to sit in the front row. Finally, we joined her in the Carl Davis anthem Why do I love Australia? Because of you, Dame Edna.

Barry Humphries and the ACO

Venue: Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Dates: 16-17 December 2009
Time: 8pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

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