I first noticed this little show when I received my regular brochure from the Oxford Playhouse, where it was on for just one night in January, when we were already busy, but I thought it looked a hoot. Mrs Chrisparkle and I don’t watch much TV as we’re always at the theatre! But we make an exception for Downton Abbey, and spent one New Year’s Day watching the first series in its entirety, so hooked were we. We’ve never seen The Only Way is Essex though – credit us with some standards.
This is Luke Kempner’s one man show that was a huge success in Edinburgh last summer, an hour and three quarters of TV fantasy where our favourite posh nobs and scheming servants car-crash into the X-Factor and The Great British Bake Off, amongst other modern cultural highlights, and all without the aid of a tardis.
The story is straightforward. The Dowager Countess of Grantham shocks everyone by announcing her impending marriage to a younger man (presumably there were no older men alive) and the household has to prepare for the wedding. Trouble is, the Earl of Grantham has run out of money (again) so the whole cast has to find devious means of earning or winning some cash. That’s the framework that allows Mr Kempner to run riot with fantastic impersonations and a surreally silly plot.
I’ve no idea how many characters he voices during the course of this show – dozens and dozens – and he has a real knack for it. Particular favourites of ours were his “downstairs” females – Mrs Hughes, Mrs Patmore and especially Daisy, whose gentle lisp was absolutely uncanny. Mind you, he’s great with the upstairs ladies too, with a slightly unhinged Cora and a delightfully static Lady Mary. The Dowager Countess perhaps occasionally sounded more like the lovechild of Maggie Smith and Julian Clary (possibly one of life’s less likely outcomes). With the men, he excelled with the sneaky and snide Thomas Barrow, a splendidly jolly Earl of Grantham, and a quietly satanic Mr Bates. We don’t watch X-Factor or British Bake-Off (see paragraph 1, above) but I can recognise a good Dermot O’Leary when I hear one, and he got Mel and Sue’s soft and punchy voices down to a tee. I won’t tell you any of the other voices because that would give too much of the game away.
This is a show purely for fun; you’re not going to come away with a greater insight into the human condition and it’s not going to change your Weltanschau. But it will make you laugh a lot. If you like Downton, you’ll love this; we did. It’s on for another week at the Trafalgar Studios, and then continues to tour small venues up and down the country till May. And if you can’t wait to see the show and want to get a sneaky peek of Mr Kempner in action, just search for him on youtube where you will find some brilliantly funny videos!