With its multitude of characters and intricate plot lines, Downton Abbey can sometimes be difficult to follow. But when Luke Kempner takes the appropriately august Kilbourn Hall stage to perform "Upside Downton," you will only have to focus on one man.
Of course it's not quite that simple. Mr. Carson, Lady Mary, Mrs. Hughes, the Dowager, and many others will be there. But they'll all be played by Kempner, a master impressionist who will channel character after character at a breakneck pace.
In the midst of building his career on London's West End — the British Broadway — in shows like "Les Misérables," "Avenue Q," and "South Pacific," Kempner took a detour to YouTube. He wrote and starred in his own condensed version of "Downton Abbey" featuring exaggerated caricatures of the series' major figures. The videos went viral and he soon found himself appearing before sold-out crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Born just south of London, Kempner, who is 28 years old, is the son of a horse-riding instructor mother, who had some brushes with England's upper crust, and an amateur actor father, who often impersonated Groucho Marx. So, you might say he was born to take down "Downton."
Kempner emphasizes the fact that you don't have to be a "Downton Abbey" fanatic to enjoy his show. In fact, in his Downton world, circumstances cause the grand house's residents to engage with a broad range of outsiders from Russell Brand to the Kardashians.
City Newspaper recently caught up with Kempner (by phone) at his London flat. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
City: How did you discover you were an impressionist?
Luke Kempner: When I was 10, 11 years old, I used to do silly voices all the time. It was like imitating computer games for my friends. When I got older and was at school I used to do the teachers and get in lots of trouble. When I was at drama school at 18, at the end-of-year Christmas Carol Concert, I used to get up and do impressions of all the teachers in a 10-minute comedy set. It was a Nativity play and I'd have each teacher play a different part, but I'd do all the voices.
What British comedy tradition do you come out of? Monty Python? Ricky Gervais?
Python was pretty big but my dad was a Groucho Marx impersonator, so I used to watch Marx Brothers films all the time. I used to know "Room Service" and "Duck Soup" by heart. Also things like "Fawlty Towers." More recently, I'm into the American version of "The Office" series and I watch a lot of stand-ups, people like Bill Burr and Louis C.K. And I love Ricky Gervais.
You attended Guildford School of Acting. What did you get out of that?
It was an amazing three years of my life. You're surrounded by people who want to do the same thing. When you do it professionally, the aim is to make money doing what you love doing, but when you're at drama school, you don't have those pressures of paying the bills. You get to go and act and sing and dance every day and you're learning to have the chops for when you get into the professional world.
Do you have a technique for getting an impression down?
Yes, I have a sort of formula. Some of them come immediately and I can hear them in my voice, like Carson. [In Carson's voice]: I could hear that Carson was very low and down here. And: Someone like Daisy [in her voice], I could hear that she was quite high and had a bit of a lisp, so I knew that that wouldn't take long.
For some of the harder ones, I'll record little snippets of them talking from the show and listen to them over and over again and try to do an impression. I'll go to sleep and wake up the next day and have another go. Usually it's a bit better then. It might take two or three days to get something good and then I'll do it on stage four or five times to really find what's funny about each character.
You kind of created your "Downton" career yourself, through YouTube.
There are two separate parts to my career. I started out in musical theater but I'd always done the impressions so I put some videos on YouTube, and the third video I put on, the "Downton Abbey" one, got re-tweeted by [singer] Tom Jones and [comedian] Stephen Fry and overnight it got tens of thousands of views and that's really what propelled me into doing it professionally.
It took me in a different direction and a direction I really wanted to go in. I love musical theater but I'd always wanted to write my own stuff and I'd always wanted to make people laugh. YouTube gave me that chance.
Are you a fan of "Downton Abbey"?
A huge fan — I love it. Writing a show based on Downton, it means I have to watch so much of it. I've seen every episode 10 to 15 times and I never get bored.
It can get complicated. How do you choose what to zero in on?
I try to find the things that everybody's noticed. If someone seems to die at the end of every series, that's something that everybody would notice. Or that Mary's always got a new man on the go — things like that. Sometimes you can just invent stuff. I sort of do Mr. Molesley as always trying to volunteer for things which he sort of does in the series.
Who are your favorite characters?
I love the Dowager because she's just got amazing one-liners. I love Carson because he's so stuck in his ways, and I love his relationship with Mrs. Hughes because she's just a little bit more knowledgeable about the world than Carson seems to be, and she just keeps him in check. I can't believe it looks like they're going to get together, which is all very exciting.
Do you identify with any of them?
I think I'd probably be downstairs if I was there. I'd be a servant who keeps needling with Lord Grantham.
How do you not only get into the heads but also into the bodies of the characters?
I try and find the mannerisms that can symbolize them. Like for Thomas, I'd always be rubbing my hands, which looks like he's polishing a shoe. It's just the thing that signifies Thomas.
For Carson, I always have his hands behind his back. He isn't always like that but if you picture Carson and I say his hands are behind his back people wouldn't go, "That's weird." You'd think, "That's about right."
When you're on stage and in the "Downton Abbey" zone, do you ever improvise?
A little bit, usually when things happen in the audience. Say the lights come up at the wrong moment or someone goes to the toilet or someone's coughing too much, I might go, [in Mrs. Patmore's voice] "Are you all right there, dear. Do you want a glass of water?" Other than that, it's pretty scripted just to keep it tight.
What about a cellphone going off, a real anachronism?
I could hear Carson saying, "We don't have the kind of thing at Downton; please turn it off."
How do you switch characters so fast?
It's the toughest thing on the voice. [In a Billy Connelly voice] Billy Connolly's very, very loud and rough on the voice." But because I trained as a singer, I've got those muscles in my vocal chords that can take a lot. I enjoy doing characters from high to low: Daisy [high voice]: "Can I have a conversation with Mr. Carson? Is that right Mr. Carson?" Carson [low voice]: "Yes you can, Daisy." I love doing those because they're the most impressive to watch on stage.
Are there any characters you can't do?
There are some I steer clear of. Some have story lines that are quite hard-hitting and you can't make something funny out of that. The woman who plays Edith is a wonderful actress but there's not loads I can grab from her. I make jokes about Edith but I don't have her as a character.
Have you had any real-life contact with the actors?
Elizabeth McGovern [Cora] came to see the show with her family. Jim Carter [Carson] sent me a nice message saying he'd seen my videos. Elizabeth said all the cast had seen my videos and thought they were all good fun. Thomas Howes who played William in the first two series came to see my show and sent me a nice email. It's been really positive. My show is an homage to "Downton."
Who are some of the outside guests who might make an appearance in your show?
The Brits travel to America so I've got people like Russell Brand and Ricky Gervais and Chef Ramsay. It's because Downton's in financial ruin and they have to go on TV shows to save Downton. They go on shows like "Jeopardy," and Mr. Molesley goes on "Dancing With The Stars," so we meet Bruno Tonioli and Len Goodman. Kim Kardashian's in there at some point and so is Ian McKellen.
Are there many remnants of a "Downton"-like upper and lower class in England today?
It's different. I've always thought there are two different types of rich people: people who are genuinely rich, and people who are rich but are always trying to prove how rich they are, which obviously means they're not as rich as the people who are genuinely rich.
I've done my show in some really wealthy people's houses and it's a whole different world that I really don't know. But I've also done it in Gentleman's Clubs in London where there might not be people as wealthy as that but they're pretty wealthy.
How far do you want to take "Upside Downton"?
My dream would be to play Off-Broadway in a 200-300 seater in New York City. I'd love to live in the East Village.
What is the most euphoric moment you've experienced on the stage?
The great thing about the American version of the show is the material is different than the British version, so the material is new to me. I really enjoy hearing jokes go down. It's just those moments when you find a way of doing something that suddenly really works and, "Oh, my God, that's it!"
But the best moment for me was when I was doing "Les Miz" and it was the first time I was on as Marius. I was doing it at a 3,000-seat theater up in Scotland, there was a massive 18-piece orchestra, [producer] Cameron Mackintosh sat in the audience, [composer] Claude-Michel Schönberg was there as well. At the end of "One Day More" you pump your fist, and that moment was electric. I'll never forget that moment.
With more than 500 performances taking place Thursday, September 15, through Saturday, September 24, there's a lot to take in. We'll help you get started.
Comedian Patton Oswalt discusses philosophy, comedy, and how stand-up will always be his mainstay