Stage Times: Luke Kempner

From Les Misérables to Love Island, the wonderfully mixed stage career of the macho (macho) man

After wowing crowds at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Luke Kempner is back on the road with his own unique mix of musical stand-up comedy. Joining us from his home studio where he films his impressions for social media (and also stores his washing…) Kempner is buzzing to be back performing for live audiences after a string of rave reviews.

“The tour has been so good. I did the first leg of the tour in Edinburgh and being back at the Fringe is incredible. Now, I’m out on the second leg of the tour. I opened in Brighton last week to an absolutely cracking crowd. It was just great to be back out there. I love the show – I think it’s my best show I’ve ever written. I love performing it.”

Luke might look even more familiar to reality TV fans who will have been impressed by his impressions of this year’s Love Island contestants throughout the summer series.

“Yeah, I was working with Love Island and then I did Love Island Aftersun which I’ve done before, but this time I did a VT for the reunion and that was insane. Iain Stirling, he’s like one of my best mates, messaged me on the night because I was in Edinburgh and he was like, ‘Mate, I cannot tell you how much you crushed that the room’. And then someone just filmed it off the telly and put it on TikTok and that got nine million views…”

It’s already been a varied career for Kempner, who made his professional stage debut with the cast of Les Misérables, but we caught up with him ahead of his new Macho Macho Man tour to talk life on stage – from upstaging his own dad to hearing Sara Pascoe laughing from the wings.

The First

Well, my dad used to have a little magic show and there’s footage of me constantly getting up and upstaging him, and getting more laughs than he was. So that was probably the first time I got up on stage and felt that laughter and the need for my ego to be applauded.

My very first memories when I was very, very young were of playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and all that kind of thing. But professionally, it was all musical theatre. You know, I started out in musicals, I was in Les Misérables, Avenue Q, and South Pacific, so within a year of drama school I was doing The O2 with Les Mis. So you know, it’s been a weird mix, my life on stage. And I learned a lot of stagecraft in musical theatre, but then when you start doing comedy, you have to sort of unlearn it a bit because you’re not just saying a script, you’re saying stuff that’s true to you and funny about you.

It’s a bit of a theatre term but when I’m on stage I feel like I’m home. As soon as they open the curtains up on the stage, I just love it. I feel so comfortable up there. When I started in comedy, I was like, “Oh, well, I need to be a stand-up that’s making a point”. And then I’m like, “no, I don’t”. I need to get out there, do my impressions, do my stand-up, do my sketches, do my songs, because that’s what I do. And I love that I do it all now. All of my years of being in musical theater and doing impressions of cast members and then doing impressions of celebrities has led to what I do now. So it’s all been an important journey.

The Best

Well, again in musical theatre, my best stage memory was when I first went on as Marius in Les Misérables. It was in Edinburgh Playhouse, like a 3000-seater, and I’ll never forget it. I can still see the image at the end of Act One, when we sang ‘One Day More’. And I was right at the front. Marius just puts his fist up in the air and sings it out and I was just like, “this is it! There are 3000 people and I’ve just sang ‘One Day More’ with the whole Les Misérables cast behind me!”

When I did my Downton Abbey show in Canada and I just couldn’t believe I was doing a one-man show in Toronto, in an 800-seater, and that was insane. One day, people had to come dressed up and it was like a dress-up raffle – they’d win flights to England, because they all loved England. They were all dressed up in Downton Abbey gear. I was doing my Downton Abbey show, it was just another one of those special moments.

And then to pick a comedy one, I think supporting Russell Kane. Russell’s become a good friend of mine which again is madness to me. To get to support him so many times has been amazing. But I did a Comic Relief gig in Edinburgh again, it was about an 800-seater, and Sara Pascoe was hosting it, and I recorded my set off stage so I could listen to it when I got home to see how I’d done in front of a big audience. And I’d only been going like three or four years in comedy. When I heard the recording I could Sara laughing at my jokes. That just meant so much to me. I have told her this story since! It was just amazing that one of my peers, who I really respect, was laughing at my stuff.

So yeah, there have been a few moments.

The Worst

I did a corporate gig last night and I’d say that was pretty bad. I sent Russell a message this morning asking what to do in that situation when they’re already talking before you’ve even got on stage and he was just like, “You can’t do much”.

I’d say my worst memory on stage was when I did a corporate event some years ago and I went on at 11pm. I was supposed to go on at 9pm. It was a load of bankers and it was all blokes and big football fans. So I was gonna do some football impressions, right? But they just had an interview with Sir Geoff Hurst – the man who got a hattrick in the World Cup final – Stuart Pearce, the most capped England defender, and Tony Kotti. And then they’d had an auction.

I went on stage and I was really new and no one was listening to me. I did a joke saying something like, “Well, you’ve had Sir Geoff Hurst, you’ve had Stuart Pearce and Tony Kotti…” and someone looked at me and went “someone’s already done that”. So I’m trying to get through this and then the organiser just comes up in front of me and just signals me to end it. The same organiser comes up to me afterwards he goes goes, “Well, that was good, man. Hey, we’re going to a strip club now, you want to come?” I was like, “Nah, I’m good”, and I just ran home.

One of my worst stage moments in theatre was in Les Mis when my voice just totally cracked on a note. There’s a note in ‘Empty Chairs And Empty Tables’, where Marius “…became the last communion” and I’m probably not warmed up but I went big. And then the guy that was playing Javert just came into my dressing room afterwards and said, “I loved that, I was pissing myself”. So that’s probably my most embarrassing stage moment.

The one that made you want to get into comedy

Alan Davis is one of the people that made me want to do stand-up. I saw his video when I was about 11, when I probably shouldn’t have been watching it – his Urban Trauma tour when he must have been about 30. But I just loved it. And he was swearing and it was so exciting. I remember my uncle showing me this video and I was like, “Oh my God, I want to do comedy”. And then, this summer in Edinburgh, he came to see my show completely unannounced. I barely know him and he was just laughing all the way through.

It was moments like that tour video, you know. Interestingly, I didn’t see an impressionist that made me want to be an impressionist. I watched Alistair McGowan’s Football Backchat and I knew a bit of Rory Bremner when I was younger, but it was really stand-up that made me want to do it. And definitely seeing Alan Davis, definitely seeing Russell Kane, a lot of the stuff that Russell talks about, I was like, “Oh, that really connects with me”.

Billy Connolly is also a huge influence. Because I just love the way Billy just comes on stage and is like, “What the f*ck are we gonna talk about today?” So all these things just made me want to do it too.

The Biggest

It has to be Les Mis, it was just under 20,000 people. Just being on stage with all your friends that you’d been touring with all year, and then we’d done the Barbican where Les Mis opened 25 years ago for the 25th anniversary tour, it was amazing.

You know what’s funny is I walked out there, and I was like, “this is the closest I’ll ever be to becoming a footballer”. And it’s not like the bigger the audience, the bigger the nerves because as you go out there, and you get this is kind of weird feeling, like it’s kind of bizarre. And I actually find it’s more nerve-wracking doing a show for 50 people than it is doing it for 20,000. I mean, I can’t imagine what it’s like – yet – to be a comedian and perform in a 20,000-seater, but it was just incredible and special.

The Smallest

Oh, I’ve done previews for work in progress shows to two people. We’re all in it together. You just have to do the job but they are tough. But with those audiences, they try even harder because they don’t want it to be embarrassing for you. So you know, it’s fine.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, we all had to deal with numbers. There were 300,000 people, there were train strikes, there were people with less money, you know, there were lots of factors. So, if you’re in a big room, which I was, you had some nights that were a bit quieter than you usually have at the festival.

When you’ve got those quieter ones, the best thing is just trying to make sure that if you’re in 150-seater room and you’ve got 50 people, just make sure the 50 people all sit together. Like I can’t preach that enough to audience members. Sitting on your own so you can have more legroom is not good. As long as people sit close together and the energy can run through the room, I don’t mind.

The Weirdest

I was at the Henley Festival, which must have been about five years ago. I was due to go on the comedy stage after Lionel Richie went on the main stage. But Lionel had turned up late, right. So basically I went on halfway through his set. So obviously everyone was over watching Lionel and no one was watching me.

So I’m doing my bit to about 20 people, and then people started coming over at the end of Lionel Richie’s set, which was halfway through mine. A few minutes later, this firework display began. So basically, I performed while Lionel Richie was singing ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’ and then a load of fireworks go off. So I’d say that’s probably the strangest gig I’ve ever done.

Luke Kempner kicks off his Macho Macho Man tour in Swindon on September 16, playing dates around the UK until the start of October. Find tickets for all shows here.