Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
At one time it was possible for impressionists to satisfy their audience simply by approximating the accent and mannerisms of a particular personality and rattling off the occasional catchphrase. Nowadays audiences are more discerning and require a context and script before they will be happy. The autobiographical approach taken by Jon Culshaw in his current show The Great British Take Off is something of a surprise. After all, the point of mimicry is to be someone other than oneself.
Culshaw claims not to be a stand-up comedian so the format for The Great British Take Off is based upon two blokes in a pub chatting. Bill Dare, who created the Radio 4 impressions show Dead Ringers, guides Culshaw through a series of reminiscences, all illustrated by mimicry, about his early life in Ormskirk, his professional achievements and his encounters with celebrities.
It sounds rather cosy but is very obviously spontaneous. One of Culshaw’s more notorious routines involves making prank calls to unsuspecting people while in character; he once managed to get through to Tony Blair while pretending to be William Hague. At The Lowry, however, efforts to order pizzas from local firms in the voice of The Doctor or Alan Sugar go pear-shaped particularly when one establishment rings back sending Culshaw scrambling for his microphone and notes.
The second Act is tighter with Culshaw revealing some of the tricks of his trade showing how slightly different tones lift the voice of Alec Guinness towards that of John Lennon. He explains how Boris Johnson is so easy to take off that he is the showbiz equivalent of quantitative easing. Trump, he sighs, is the gift that keeps on taking.
Culshaw is a very accommodating performer cheerfully taking requests and running through characters from politics, entertainment, and sport. The relationship between Culshaw and Dare never becomes smug; there is no sense of effusive mutual admiration just two friends having a chat. Dare even throws Culshaw a challenge that fails – doing an impression with gestures only to see if the audience can guess the subject.
Eventually, it dawns that the appeal of The Great British Take Off is that Culshaw is right – he is a fan rather than a stand-up comedian and is enjoying himself tremendously paying tribute to his heroes and influences. The best parts of the show comprise Culshaw breathlessly recounting how, in the guise of Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor, he met Elizabeth Sladen who played a companion. His admiration for the late Les Dawson is based on the quality of his writing rather than performance. At the climax of the show, as Culshaw rushes through one request after another he addresses the suggestion of mixing Brian Blessed with Gordon Ramsay and cries out ‘ Gordon Ramsay’s Alive!’; an in-joke from Flash Gordon that no-one other than me seemed to appreciate.
26th October 2017 | Image: Contributed