Last Night Of The Poms

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Dame Edna hasn’t performed Last Night Of The Poms for 28 years. It may be churlish to say so, but maybe there’s a good reason for that.

For dress it up how you may, at the core of this show is a 40 minutes of a man with a sparkly frock and terrible singing voice screeching his way through some simplistic, not-especially-funny lyrics in tribute to his native Australia. That might make a funny 30 seconds on Britain’s Got Talent, but, strewth, is it soul sapping in the flesh.

And dress it up, Barry Humphries certainly has. This is a phenomenal production, with the full might of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by the piece’s co-creator Carl Davis, and backed with a choir that must feature 120 voices.

It’s an awesome display of musical talent, wasted on this cod cantata which follows an entirely predictable trot though Australian history, from convicts via goldrush to an unembellished list of Aussie celebrities from Hugh Jackman to Peter Andre. The lyrical highlights go no further than the couplet ‘It’s my idea of heaven/and the Prime Miniser’s called Kevin’ and racially dubious ‘[Cpt Cook] perished poor chap, in an Abo attack’.

The whole endeavour smacks of a vanity project that’s spiralled way out of control, when money or scale have ceased to be an obstacle. But then no one does vanity with quite the same style as the housewife gigastar (inflation seems to be in force with the prefix that quantifies her fame). When she’s posturing away trying to fake sympathy for the paupers in the upper-circle cheap seats, or boasting of her glamorous life with friends like Elton John and the Duchess of Cornwall forever on the phone, she’s on glitteringly bitchy form, with banter as slick, and as gloriously condescending, as it ever was – even though Humphries is 75 years old.

But such pointed badinage is strictly limited to make way for the musical centrepiece, which singularly fails to raise the same rousing spirits of its Proms near-namesake, despite one patriotic punter bringing an Australian flag into the auditorium. Indeed a small, but noticeable, number of punters start drifting away from their £65 seats before the show’s end. Maybe it’s to catch trains to suburban homes, as the night is long, but maybe because the show is getting just too self-indulgent and under-funny.

In support, Humphries’s cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson suffers the same problems. His musical piece is Peter And The Shark, an Australianised version of the Prokofiev piece, with various instruments illustrating various characters drawn from antipodean fauna in a tedious gag-light story, slowed to a wearying pace by the soloists’ interludes.

Yet again, when he’s left to his own devices, Patterson’s a delight. Sure, a lot of the comedy comes from Strine slang such as ‘budgie smugglers’ for Speedos or other cheap innuendo, but he does it excellently, with all the exaggerated flair of a pantomime grotesque.

But mostly, he’s funny for no more sophisticated reason that the arching waterfalls of phlegm that spew from his mouth and over the audience every time he hits a plosive ‘p’ sound, which seems to occur with undue frequency. If the front row had dipped into the Royal Albert Hall merely to avoid the downpour outside, they would have found themselves more drenched inside the building than out.

They would not be the only people disappointed with a show that seemed to trade too much on Humphries’s weaknesses and not enough on his strengths. Had he decided to save himself £40,000 or so and dispense with the massed musicians, and relied solely on his considerable wit to entertain the audience, we would all have been happier. For as it is, this revival is very much like Australia itself – with huge expanses of tedious nothingness between isolated centres of no-nonsense fun.

Review date: 16 Sep 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Royal Albert Hall

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