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THE ONLY WAY IS DOWNTON – Ambassadors Theatre, London

The Only Way is Downton Review PicWhat does HMV, The Great British Bake Off and Downton Abbey have in common? Stuck for an answer? Okay, we’ll tell you who and what. Luke Kempner. With a masterful one-man performance, Kempner utilises that overused phrase of a ‘chameleonic shift’ to mimic and impersonate one character, individual and actor to the next in an ebullient, effervescent two-act play.

The Only Way Is Downton is an affectionate salute to the towering fixtures of prime time telly, with a fictitious premise of a struggling Downton exposed as mired in debt from an investment gone bad (in HMV!). Meanwhile, Dame Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley has found love and is now engaged to a toy boy. With these calamitous predicaments in place, the scene is set for plentiful mirth and mayhem. Guest appearances at the abbey will include ‘a Bishop from Liverpool’ (that’ll be John Bishop, then) and Olympic diver Tom Daley via the telly staples, Pointless, the X Factor and more.

Before all that, a weight of expectation hangs in the air. The bare stage soon becomes occupied by a solitary figure. Initial hesitancy as to how matters will pan out is punctured quickly. Once Kempner speaks, a smile fixes itself on your face and locks its position for almost the entire duration. This is aided and abetted by a script that sparkles in equal measure to the imitations. By tapping into the veins of a cultural phenomenon, Luke Kempner shines a pertinent light on contemporary culture. His eyes flicker with a knowing twinkle, with a tongue planted firmly within his cheek throughout. This only enables the audience to be brought onside with an inclusive sensibility to the ludicrous antics performed onstage. The intention is that we are all at once complicit in the farfetched shenanigans.

Without ever venturing into hardened satire, he provides intermittent pokes of fun at product placement and the commercial considerations of the television industry. Sadly, it culminates in the weakest spot of the night; a musical number in act two that jars uncomfortably, feeling superfluous and unnecessary. If anything, it has the undesirable effect of implying an egotistical extension to display Kempner’s range. He doesn’t need it. Sometimes, less is indeed more.

However, to lie criticism at the feet of such a wonderful talent is incorrigible and more than a touch curmudgeonly. Luke Kempner is a performer growing into an impressive stature and undoubtedly set for the long haul. Variety is the spice of life, and that is abundantly apparent in this diverse production that belies the modest cast number. This is feel-good Theatre at its best.

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Reviewed 2/12/14

By Greg Wetherall
@gregwetherall

2 nights only: 2nd and 9th December 2014
Ambassadors Theatre, London, WC2.

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