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The Only Way Is Downton

Published 29 January 2014

In the past impressionists have left me as cold as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in a freezer.

I understand they’re technically very clever and their mastery of mimicry is mightily impressive, but that alone is not enough. It’s like creating Carson, Downton’s Butler, but giving him nothing to express consternation about, or Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess without any need for a cutting put down.

What’s so refreshing about Luke Kempner’s one-man show The Only Way Is Downton is that he has taken the time to create a plot. It gives the vocal virtuosity a raison d’etre and lifts the endeavour to another level… like when Branson left his chauffeuring duties behind to become a member of the aristocracy.

Okay, so the 90-minute plot is a silly one and just a touch anachronistic. Downton, the estate so beloved to viewers of the ITV Sunday night drama, is once again under threat. Cold hard cash is needed to save it and fund the Dowager Countess’ extravagant wedding. So the servants concoct unlikely, mostly reality TV-based plans to raise the loot.

This gives the assorted members of the Downton team an excuse to meet the likes of Mel and Sue on the Great British Bake Off, Alexander Armstrong on Pointless and even Andy Murray at Wimbledon.

Kempner gives a performance as polished as the Downton silverware, switching between characters using distinctive mannerisms and even more distinctive voices.

His downstairs collection of the shrinking, lisping Daisy, the high-pitched bristle of Mrs Patmore and the easily recognisable boom of Carson are impeccable, while the Maggie Smith mannerisms and deadpan Lady Mary are clearly crowd favourites.

Among the many Downton in-jokes – Lord Grantham’s desperation to place the show in 1918, Matthew’s driving ability and Mr Bates’ criminal record – there’s much to make non-Downtonites giggle, though if you have little knowledge of pop culture you might be left bemused.

That is always the danger with impressions shows; if you don’t know the characters you can miss the joke.

Downton, X-Factor, Andy Murray and The Great British Bake Off are firmly ingrained in the minds of millions, so shouldn’t be too much of an issue. But even if televisions have been banned from your life – or you’re living in a country estate in 1918 – The Only Way Is Downton is worth a look to revel in the sheer stamina of Kempner, who plays every character in the fast-moving comedy that boasts more famous faces than Madame Tussauds.

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