Radio 4’s political comedy impressions show Dead Ringers first aired in 2000, although in that 21-year history it transferred to television for five years. After the TV series was cancelled, it rested for a further seven before returning to radio.
In this live stage version, Dead Ringers stalwart Jon Culshaw, who has been with the show since the beginning, is joined by Duncan Wisbey and Debra Stephenson, who joined upon the radio revival in 2014.
Promising a mixture of some of the show’s best sketches and a smattering of new material, the former category is more in evidence, particularly as the topical nature of Dead Ringers’ sketch content lends an indelible time stamp to each skit. Thankfully, a lot of the material is culled from the radio show’s most recent series so jokes about lockdown, Liz Truss’s attempts to negotiate trade deals and Gareth Southgate’s earnestly dull post-match interviews have not yet aged to oblivion.
What ages less well are references to TV series, such as people’s disappointment with the conclusion to Line of Duty or the smouldering sexuality of Normal People. Lampooning current television shows such as Danny Dyer’s The Wall fare rather better, especially when emphasising the host’s vocal tics that make the whole show’s premise (letting balls fall down a wall) sound ridiculous summarised by a man who can’t pronounce the double-L at the end of words.
Elsewhere, TV show premises allow for flights of fancy, from Angela Rayner bringing a collection of defective Labour Party leaders to The Repair Shop to Chris Whitty being given his own Saturday night came show, Next Slide Please.
With only three of the radio series’ five regulars on stage, some areas of the repertoire feel underserved – for example, Stephenson’s attempts to impersonate Diane Abbott end up as an unsuccessful attempt to impersonate the absent Jan Ravens’ impression.
However, each of the three artists present brings something fresh to the stage. Culshaw riffs on how easily one impression can merge into the next, moving from Alec Guinness to John Lennon, Paul O’Grady and John Bishop in swift succession. Wisbey helps lend a musical air, from converting Boris Johnson’s blustering into a form on Etonian beatboxing to accompanying a full scale, if patchy, Disney musical commemorating John Humphrys’ departure from Today.
But the highlight has to be Stephenson’s lightness of touch. Her impressions – at least those she has not had to take over from Ravens – have such an air of immediate recognition that Dead Ringers’ habit of announcing characters by name starts to feel unnecessary. In addition, it becomes noticeable that sketches in which Stephenson delivers the punchline are the ones that feel that they have the strongest conclusion.
The show may start hesitantly, but that soon fades, and by the time Dead Ringers has filled its hour, comes a reminder of why, 21 years after the series’ first creation, it remains a source of great comedy.
Continues until 29 August