Possoms, artistes are always highly-strung

'HAVE you got a notebook?' the voice was stern and demanding, although its gender was uncertain.

'No, I have a camera. I came to photograph you,' I replied.

'Well, someone get this down on paper, I don't want any mistakes. Costume credit: Stephen Adnitt.' The name was spelled out so there would be no mistakes and noted down by Alex Ng, lucklessly deputed to be my minder.

The rules had been agreed: I had precisely one minute to photograph Dame Edna Everage in her dressing room. She would have completed her costume change and had her cup of tea, and a packed house would be waiting. No messing about, or I was out.

The shimmering red sequins were resplendent, within them the manner now courteous, but there had been no hiding the nerves and fury that Barry Humphries had displayed minutes before when he left the stage after the first set, featuring a display of obnoxious dribbling by the drunk Sir Les Patterson.

The dressing room walls at the Lyric Theatre are very thin and I had been deposited in the next room while the secret transmogrification took place. No, I could not photograph the metamorphosis. No, I would not be allowed to witness the plastering of heavy stage makeup and the easing onto the head of the mauve rinse wig. I was to wait quietly until I was called.

In the room, three young helpers proffered an enormous tin of biscuits. 'They cost a bomb,' said one. 'We bought them in case the Governor came down, but he's not coming after all.' His Excellency was indeed in the audience and had surely been amused by the uncouth Sir Les. But a visit backstage to meet the creator of the Australian cultural ambassador to the Court of St James was hardly in order. Humphries could be heard next door berating the unknown idiot who had let him down on a music cue. 'Disaster,' he growled. 'You've no idea what it's like,' he was telling someone, his wife I think, although it was not her fault.

'Don't forget tomorrow to get a proper knife and fork for his dinner,' one of the helpers told another. The Dame hadn't taken kindly to the plastic utensils she'd been offered with a snack.

The growling in the next room ceased. 'OK, ready,' came a shout and in I walked to find the bundle of red sequins and specs that have become one of the greatest one-man (or is it one-woman?) stage acts of our age, smiling graciously. She orders the gladdies around while I order excess furniture out of the way.

Just one minute, the audience is in its seats and the show must go on. Click, whir, snap, snap. The saucy grin, the pout, she's done it all so many times, though seldom are photographers allowed in the dressing room. Lee, the dresser and makeup artist, rushes in and places a cloak over the broad shoulders. 'No, no, no more photos, please stop.' The cloak whirls and flows out of the door for another performance of an act that has delighted audiences around the world.

As I leave, I catch the strains of laughter from the auditorium. Another audience is being entranced by the illusion.

Performances at Lyric Theatre, Academy for Performing Arts, October 18-22. Urbtix bookings: 734-9009.