Jan Ravens: A Funny Look at Impressions

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

You’ll learn a lot about impressionism from Jan Ravens’s new show – its history, its science and its psychology – but you won’t necessarily laugh a whole lot.

This is an affable ‘audience with…’ session, rather than a devastatingly hilarious stand-up show. Ravens, who was the first female president of Cambridge Footlights, is an intelligent woman who’s clearly often pondered how strange it is that she came to be earning a decent living by adopting other people’s voices. This notably theatrical show is the result of those thoughts, supported by a bit of research.

You’ll discover how the ‘resonance chambers’ of the human head give everyone’s voice a different timbre and stress, how Aristophanes was possibly the first impressionist, how stage mimics had to circumvent the draconian censorship of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office from 1737 to 1968 All fascinating stuff, and imparted with clarity and enthusiasm by Ravens in the style of a favourite schoolmistress, but as light on mirth as you might expect.

You’ll also learn how impersonators were once, like satirical cartoonists, considered genuinely seditious, and that when Stanley Baxter was the first to take off the Queen – as late as 1972 – there was genuine fear of offence. It’s hard to square that with the often witty, but largely asinine, skits of Dead Ringers.

Four of the five writers on this show come from Dead Ringers, and the funniest moments come from ideas dusted down from the TV or radio shows, such as the perfect mockery of Jane Fonda’s cosmetics ads, or the hilarious flirtations of an impossibly seductive Fiona Bruce.

Over the 100 or so minutes, Ravens runs through her full gamut of impressions, even if sometimes giving only a line or two in their voice. It’s always spot-on, demonstrating without doubt that she is singularly talented in this perverse art, needing no costumes or props to conjure up her targets.

It’s easy to lose count of just how many impressions she does, but you can certainly include all the perennial favourites – Kirsty Walk, Nicky Hambleton-Jones, Natasha Kaplinski and Hazel Blears (the source of the show’s main running gag) - and even some blasts from the past such as Moira Stewart, Kate Adie and Dame Shirley Williams.

But often the gags that emerge from these caricatures are weak and obvious, so the only laugh is the one of recognition. This reaches a low in the twee sketch that opens the second half, in which the hard-up Queen is imagined turning to plumbing for extra income. It is so old fashioned, with Her Majesty posing with ballcock and plunger instead of orb and sceptre, that it could surely have come from Ravens’ 1979 Footlights revue.

It shows up some of the problems of sustaining a one-woman show entirely out of impressions. It’s a question that clearly vexed the clued-up Ravens, and presumably why she’s gone for this largely ‘…and this is me’ approach. Another reason might stem from her complaint that since there are still comparatively few women in positions of power, her role on Dead Ringers was often reduced to playing the interviewer. It’s hard to make a two-sided sketch when all you’ve got are the questions.

So in lieu of a full Dead Ringers tour, the academic approach, seasoned with the sort of brief glimpses of her own life and career that would make her an engaging talk-show guest, is what she plumped for. If only it were consistently funnier.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Finchley ArtsDepot, May 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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