The man sitting opposite me smiles broadly and says: “I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that people would come to a Barry Humphries show and sit in the front few rows not knowing what they’re coming to.”
This is Simon Phillips and he smiles not only broadly but frequently, as well he might. He’s the director of Eat, Pray, Laugh! which is otherwise known as Barry Humphries’ Farewell Tour.
Those front row stalwarts – and I think we can assume these were not the last seats snapped up ahead of next week’s near sell-out run at the Theatre Royal – should be aware that they could have a vital part to play in the show.
In the flamboyant guise of Dame Edna, the Australian comic plays the front row ‘possums’ like fish on a line, asking about their homes and their clothes in a disarmingly friendly way before delivering crushing put-downs to the great amusement of everyone else.
In the considerably less flamboyant guise of Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s unlikely cultural attache, he treats the front of the stalls to more than just a shower of words.
In Edinburgh, where I met Barry Humphries and Simon Phillips, no-one seemed to mind. In fact, people seemed to revel in it. Certainly nobody walked out.
But there are elements of a Barry Humphries show that cannot easily be omitted.
Mischievously ribbing people – while appearing to empathise with them – about their hair, home or fashion tastes is a tried-and-tested part of the Dame Edna routine. Humphries does it brilliantly and there are those, we have to assume, who regard it as a bit of an honour to be actively involved as the butt of the jokes, or maybe they see it as a risk worth taking for a close-up view of Edna’s frocks or Les’s... well, whatever.
What’s unusual this time is that Simon Phillips is involved at all. Humphries is as skilled a performer as they come and usually directs his own shows, which is understandable since every major character involved is essentially him.
Only Dame Edna’s loyal bridesmaid, Madge Allsop, was ever allowed to share the limelight but she never uttered a word and generally looked seriously depressed – cowed, no doubt, by Edna’s glamour and charisma.
According to the Eat, Pray, Laugh! programme, Madge and Simon have something in common – or had, since Madge has now gone to join the husband she lost on her honeymoon when he “tragically fell into a pool of boiling mud”. Both are New Zealanders.
Simon, though, has a distinguished track record as a theatre director in Australia. He was artistic director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia in the early 1990s and later spent more than a decade in the same role at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
His credits span the theatrical spectrum, taking in Shakespeare, grand opera and the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert (coincidentally also coming to the Theatre Royal in February with Jason Donovan heading the cast). His CV has a long tail of awards and the garish odd socks he is wearing are, it turns out, a bohemian fashion statement rather than an oversight.
So why get involved with a comic superstar used to being the master of all he surveys?“Well,” says Simon, “Barry is quite good at being bossed around.
“Traditionally, he hasn’t worked with a director but on this occasion, because it’s his farewell tour, he thought it would be great to feel he had a set of eyes outside for once, as a reliable source of feedback, and he also wanted the show to be a little bit different.
“He wanted another mind to work on it so he didn’t fall back entirely on the same format as in the other shows.
“Barry is a fantastic theatre-goer and, as luck would have it, he had seen quite a lot of my work in Australia. I am a massive Barry Humphries fan so there wasn’t a second thought about taking the gig.”
Simon reflects that one of the first shows that made a big impact on him was a Barry Humphries special where he was particularly taken with the character of Sandy Stone, the quietly mournful – and now not-so-quietly deceased – resident of the suburbs.
“He only made a small appearance in the show but he’s an interesting character. He’s one of Barry’s favourite characters and he doesn’t work everywhere but I honestly have never laughed so much in all my life. That was years and years ago and after that I started going to see Barry perform whenever I could.”
Simon, who was asked to deliver a farewell show, says: “I’ve taken the brief seriously.”
After a pause he adds: “I don’t know if Barry has taken it seriously. He’s a theatre animal and responds to a live audience. It has been his lifeblood so he is hesitant about saying categorically that it’s his last. He’s 80 (or he will be on February 17) but the energy he displays in doing these shows is incredible. I’ll be thrilled if he does another one when he’s 84.”
The demands are mental as well as physical. “He hates rehearsing because he’s so responsive to an audience,” says Simon. “He addresses his audience and stuff will flow out of that. It works brilliantly with Edna because she is so dependent on the audience. You can take her anywhere and it can work but it is also a dangerous thing for anyone to do. Sometimes it goes brilliantly and sometimes it’ll fall into a trough but always Edna will clamber brilliantly, radiantly out.
“It is fascinating the way that he works.”
The resulting show, which has had the now usual fantastic reviews, is clearly a collaborative effort, Simon canny enough to know when to speak and when to stay silent and let his on-stage charge – and his employer – follow his well-honed instincts.
Since he also directed Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which follows the fortunes of a pair of drag queens, it seems fair to ask Simon about working with another man in women’s clothes. He rebuffs the comparison immediately, saying: “To call Barry a drag act is wrong because Dame Edna is so complete a creation that the humour doesn’t derive from the fact that it’s really a man under those frocks.”
This is quite right. The humour, as Barry Humphries points out in his dressing room after yet another show where he has given his all, really derives from the delusion of a quite ordinary woman who believes she’s a global superstar.
The irony now, of course, is that over the decades ordinary little housewife Edna Everage has become that very thing. In big cities around the world – including Edinburgh and, next week, Newcastle – people flock to pay homage to Barry Humphries and all his creations, to laugh at others’ mild discomfort and (in the case of Sir Les and even more so in the case of his brother Gerard, a disgraced man of the cloth) at humour that is silly and very far from politically correct. They will wave a ‘gladdie’ in farewell, go home happy and hope there might be just one more chance to do it all again another day.
As for Simon Phillips’ impact on this farewell tour, I can reveal that this is a show with a relatively elaborate set, a number of quite intricately choreographed scenes, some on-stage cooking, one or two big bangs and lots of colourful costumes. Those socks offer just the merest hint of the mayhem to come.
There are still a few tickets left for Eat, Pray, Laugh! at the Theatre Royal next Tuesday to Friday. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk