It is hard to imagine anyone looking less like Cora the Countess of Grantham than Luke Kempner. Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome, the 26-year-old, who hails from Horley in Surrey, is anything but Lady of the Manor material — least of all a Crawley. Yet remarkably, with a raise of his eyebrows and lowering of his chin, Kempner can transform himself into the wealthy heiress played by Elizabeth McGovern in Downton Abbey. And when he speaks, not even Cora’s own mother could spot the imposter.
Cora is far from the only Crawley in Kempner’s repertoire as the master mimic has nailed the voices and expressions of all Downton’s key players and thoughtfully given them parts in his one-man show, which opens in London at the end of the month.
As the antidote to Downton deprivation, Kempner’s The Only Way is Downton could not be better timed for devotees desperate for a fix after the Christmas special. But don’t go expecting the Julian Fellowes treatment. For as the title suggests, this is a much more amusing ITV2-style production.
“I love Downton as much as the next person, but the set-up is ripe for comedy,” explains Kempner with a devious smile that he uses to great effect to portray sly under-butler Thomas Barrow. “It’s very family friendly. The odd swear word, but that’s barely worth mentioning.”
Where Kempner does meet Fellowes is in the plot for his stage show, which, much like the series, revolves around saving Downton.
“We both want the same thing,” he says. “We just go about it in different ways, so that in my show the characters are watching X Factor and then taking part in other shows, so you get the cook Mrs Patmore going on The Great British Bake Off and tyrant lady’s maid O’Brien appears on Pointless. Oh yes, and the Dowager Countess is getting married again to a much younger man. Somebody rather famous as it turns out, but I shan’t spoil it.”
Kempner, who comes from a family of Austrian Jews, does a marvellous Mrs Patmore and has mastered the cutting tongue of the Dowager and the pomposity of head butler Carson. “My uncle Teddy went to drama school with Imelda Staunton, who is married to Jim Carter [who plays Carson] and apparently the whole cast have watched me on YouTube and really enjoyed it.”
He says he has always done impressions. “While studying musical theatre at Guildford School of Acting, my party piece at the end of every term was impersonating the teachers. It was a hit every time, but after graduating I went into Les Miserables as Marius — which incidentally I performed in front of Claude-Michel Schonberg [responsible for the show’s book and music] in Paris — then Avenue Q and South Pacific at the Barbican. After that ended, my girlfriend said I should do something with the impressions and so my friend Leo Staar and I wrote sketches that featured celebs in the news. I’m also a passionate Arsenal fan, so football was an obvious one and when Matt Lucas, a fellow Gooner, saw my Arsene Wenger and Harry Rednapp, he tweeted and the interest grew.”
But it was Stephen Fry tweeting about the Downton sketches that set in train the interest that brought Kempner to the attention of James Seabright, a prominent producer at the Edinburgh Festival, who proposed backing a show at Edinburgh.
“I had never taken anything to the Fringe and didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “When we sold out for a week at the 50-seater venue, I assumed it was because the show had Downton in the title. By the time we sold out at the 150-seater, I figured it must have something to do with the show.”
The Countess of Grantham would certainly vouch for that, or at least her husband and children would, as Elizabeth McGovern’s family were in the audience at Edinburgh and made a point of meeting him. “They loved it and didn’t mind that I take the mick out of her voice. Neither did she as she mentioned me in an interview.”
Though the lack of similarity between the two could not have escaped the actress, her Downton character’s possible Jewish heritage and Kempner’s own is a tie of sorts.
“But I think we’re grabbing at straws,” he chuckles, adding that his intention is not to be mean about any of the characters.
“No, not even the stilted Lady Mary,” he says, though it is her pigs in the last series that have led to urgent script changes ahead of Kempner’s show’s opening. “Let’s just say the prominence of those shows has meant a lot of rewriting.”
By the end of the year, he hopes to take the show to America, where the Crawley family are even more popular. But there’s also talk of a Saturday night TV show. “Can’t say more than that,” he closes, raising his eyebrows as only the Countess of Grantham can.
The Only Way is Downton is at Trafalgar Studios from January 27– February 22 and will tour the UK this Spring