A great impression can boil a person’s essence down to a sentence, to a phrase, or – when the cast of Radio 4’s Dead Ringers are on form – to just one syllable. Jon Culshaw opens his mouth, gives us a “Fwah!”, and Boris Johnson is in the room.
Culshaw is currently fwah-ing in a circus tent behind an upside-down inflatable purple cow, at Earl’s Court’s pop-up festival venue London Wonderground. He’s joined by a smaller-than-usual cast of two fellow Ringers, Duncan Wisbey and Debra Stephenson. Fans may regret the absence of Jan Ravens, whose quavering Theresa May was the best thing to come out of May’s time in Number 10, but this trio still became a cast of hundreds, with Donald Trump, Darth Vadar and Greta Thunberg (“the world’s first woke Moomin”) jostling for stage-time with a lugubrious Andy Murray. The voices are generally sharper than the punchlines, but the voices are very sharp indeed.
On Wednesday, an audience interaction segment – with Culshaw taking requests – petered out before it started, when someone requested the German comic Henning Wehn. Culshaw refused, either out of politeness to a friend, reluctance to try a German accent, or simply because Wehn wasn’t in his repertoire. (It couldn’t have been a professional objection to spoofing another comic, as proven by his larger-than-life John Bishop.)
Rather better was a Disney-inspired musical medley (also featured in the 2019 Dead Ringers Live tour), which gave us Nicola Sturgeon’s take on Let it Go, a boisterous Nigel Farage knees-up, and a wonderfully oleaginous Jacob Rees-Mogg (Wisbey) channelling the Jungle Book’s snake Kaa, crooning the reasons why voters should trust in him: “I’m erudite, electable, sleek and debonaire/With Woody Allen’s spectacles and Adolf Hitler’s hair.”
Dead Ringers has had a remarkably long life – it’s 21 years since the first episode aired; Culshaw is 53. If the upside to this is a warm, chummy chemistry between comedians who’ve worked together for years, the downside is rather old-fashioned quality to the show’s writing, where the same self-contained sketch ideas (game show spoofs, voicemail messages) come back year after year. Yet some old formats stick around for a reason: I was tickled by the idea of Chris Whitty (a quietly exasperated Wisbey) hosting a primetime quiz show called Next Slide, Please.
A sense of datedness is exacerbated by the format of this live show, which features some new material but mainly takes the form of a greatest-hits set, uncorking routines dating back as far as the night after the 2016 EU referendum. One of the funniest skits – an understated parody of Normal People, replete with Pinter-esque pauses – might have gone down better with the audience if they hadn’t already heard it on the radio quite recently.
It may be formulaic, but at its best Dead Ringers remains more inventive than many younger rivals. One of their spoof BBC Sounds adverts neatly dismisses half the current audio comedy scene at a stroke – I’d rather catch Culshaw and co, on the air or in a tent, than tune in to “a comedian off the telly’s brand new podcast where he talks to comedians off the telly about what it’s like to have a brand new podcast.”
Until Aug 29. Tickets: londonwonderground.co.uk