Keeping It in the Family

Jay Richardson talks to Sooz and Luke Kempner about sibling rivalry, laughing over hard times and being upstaged by their pets

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Luke and Sooz Kempner
Published 22 Jul 2017

Like any self-respecting showbusiness dynasty, the Kempners enjoy their fair share of dysfunctionality. Fortunately, standup affords them an outlet to laugh about it. Born to a dressage rider and Groucho Marx impersonator, Suzanna and Luke began their careers in musical theatre. But comedy was always going to be their destiny.

Sooz points to her buying Auschwitz: The Nazis & 'The Final Solution' on DVD for her brother's birthday as evidence of a shared sense of humour. “It's amazing!” she protests. “An extremely good, six-part BBC series. And anyone with Jewish heritage is obsessed with the Holocaust ...”

In retaliation, Luke bought her “a full-size Zippy from Rainbow costume”.

Which was “pretty annoying actually”, Sooz confirms. “I felt it when the presents were all laid out. I thought 'ooh, he's doing pretty well at the moment, it's a nice coat'. Then it turned out to be fucking Zippy!”

“Miles better.”

“Now it sits stuffed in a plastic cube in the corner of my room and every time I pass it, it's like Zippy's pleading, 'Please help me!'”

At 30, impressionist Luke is the better known of the siblings, his hit live show The Only Way Is Downton turning him into a mimic-in-demand for shows like Celebrity Big Brother's Bit On The Side. He recently shot a panel show try-out for ITV with Alexander Armstrong and Rory Bremner and had his own pilot for ITV2.

Two years his senior, his character comic and standup sister jokes about the distress of witnessing her younger brother follow her into performing, only to surpass her. But beyond suggesting that she owns a voodoo doll of him, there's little obvious sibling rivalry. Sooz was thrilled to play a nonplussed customer in a sketch showing her brother's starch-shirted Downton Abbey servants running a greasy spoon café for Luke Kempner's Impression of 2015. It was “the first time we'd been filmed together since we were caught fighting in the background of a family wedding in 2003,” she recalls.

Before turning to comedy, the pair played the lead roles of mother and son geese in a production of the musical Honk!. Sooz dismisses this as a potential trigger for therapy, “because there's just been a lot of that in general over the years; it was nothing new”.

Indeed, when she tells you that her latest show, Sooz On Film—about a screenplay she genuinely sent Martin Scorsese at 16, to star her and Robert De Niro—is her most personal, you believe her, despite her 2014 debut being about their parents' divorce. Sooz's relationship with her estranged actor father is a knotty, troubled one which she's referenced in a number of shows. She even played a version of him in her character showcase last year, complete with wig and facial hair.

Now though, Mark Kempner also gets played by his son in his most personal show to date, Take a Long Hard Luke at Yourself, inspired by Kempner Sr. presenting him with a sat nav on which his father had recorded his own voice. “Part of why I became an impressionist comes from my experiences with him. I talk about the father-son relationship and which direction that pushed me,” Luke says.

“I talk a lot about how my life is very sorted, how I have a wife, a little dog and I'm very happy. But then I have another side of my life which is unresolved, the relationship with my father and our parents' divorce in general.” Amidst all the celebrity impersonations, he says, “I explore that a little bit, in a funny way hopefully”.

From their horse-riding mother meanwhile, the Kempners inherited their love of animals. Sooz has gone on to become a handler on films such as last year's Oscar-winning The Danish Girl, which made her “feel very unattractive, because Alicia Vikander is very beautiful. And I was covered in dog hair”.

Both accept though, that neither they nor their parents are the highest achievers in their family. “Our pets have better CVs than us,” Luke admits. His dog Pongo starred in the Legally Blonde musical, their childhood pooch was in a Nissan advert, and their cat Boris was Jonesy in Aliens. Sooz sighs. “I'll never be as iconic as my own cat.”