The Only Way Is Downton

The Only Way Is Downton
The Only Way Is Downton

Our nation is divided – on Sunday evenings, at least – between Downton devotees and Abbey abstainers. At the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, the former were blissfully in their element.

From modest beginnings in 2013, Luke Kempner’s one-man show has become a phenomenon. On his third visit to Eastbourne, Luke reprised his superb impressionist talents and, with an inexhaustible energy and a real gift for the live stage, he delighted his audience. The clever, rat-a-tat script is filled with Downton characters instantly recognisable to the addicts. Close your eyes and you are listening to Downton Abbey the Radio Play….

But even for an intruder, there was much to enjoy. The dialogue is diverting and often very amusing – if once or twice a bit risqué for a rather proper Eastbourne audience. And as the evening unfolds, there is a whole parade of non-Downton personalities making their appearances, from John Bishop to Gordon Ramsay.

On the very credible premise that the Abbey is facing financial ruin, the story lurches through a string of improbable rescue operations. Thomas appears on a game show, Bates flukes his way to a Wimbledon final – cue superb impersonations of Becker, McEnroe and Andy Murray – and the Dowager is destined to marry into Daniel Radcliffe’s fortune.

Now, if you know your Edinburgh Festival, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the show began life there in a 49-seat converted shipping container. The sprawling, quite manic Festival has its detractors, but it is also the cradle of very much original, inventive theatre that grows into greater things. Luke struck lucky, but deservedly so.

The drawback is that almost everything at Edinburgh fits neatly into fifty-minute packages – so that the punters can fit in three or four shows in a day and still have time for a stroll on Princes Street. Private Peaceful and Showstoppers are just two recent outstanding examples. But this on-the-road production is spun out a little bit thinly into two acts, and while the jokes keep coming, the second-half plot meanders and has no real destination.

Never mind. The Devonshire Park Downton-ers had turned up by the charabanc-load, and they soaked up their evening of jolly good fun. By Kevin Anderson.