Once Were Leaders

Playhouse, February 10

Gillies res
Tony who? Photo: Marty Williams.

For all Dame Edna’s technicolour bravura and Sir Les’s slobbering buffoonery the most telling segment of a Barry Humphries show could often be Sandy Stone’s. Suddenly a cloud of wistful poignancy passed across the comedy. At the end of Max Gillies’ one-man show Once Were Leaders he channels Stone – dressing-gown, comfy chair and hottie – to realise his finest performance of the night, as John Howard.

Although much more overtly funny than Stone generally was, Gillies’ Howard did dare to flirt with other emotions, so the comedy was fuller and riper, and the satire softened with a beige tint of affection.

Gillies joins John Clarke as being among our most arch satirists, and yet implicit in his best work is that trace of affection for his subject-victims. It was there most notably in the pinnacle of his impersonations, Bob Hawke, but also present in his Queen Elizabeth, Graham Richardson, Ronald Reagan (whose Star Wars program was “making heaven safe for democracy”) and even his Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps that was the missing ingredient in Gillies’ less convincing impressions: Malcolm Fraser and Kevin Rudd.

For the first act Gillies stands at a lectern to revisit these old friends without costume or make-up changes, while making a general point about the receding tide of political leadership. In the second half he offers charming reminiscences about his television heyday, responds to questions penned by the audience and rounds out the entertainment with the Howard tour de force.

The show was created by Gillies and director Andrew Barker with writing contributions from Gillies, Patrick Cook, Guy Rundle, Don Watson and Heathcote Williams. Were Gillies to scrap Fraser, Rudd and possibly Menzies from the first half, condense the reminiscing and ditch the questions (other than delightfully explaining how he finds his way into each character) this could be a tight and vigorous one-act piece.

One might have expected more about our incumbent PM, but then perhaps some people do the satirist’s work themselves.