The golden years of ventriloquism, when the likes of Ray Alan and Lord Charles or even Keith Harris and Orville, played full houses in music halls and cabaret, may be over but Nina Conti is one of a new wave of acts proving that there’s life left in puppetry.
Conti (yes, daughter of actor, Tom) has been performing in fringe shows, TV and radio (I’ve never understood vent acts on radio) for the past 20 years but now she’s joined the establishment with a West End show.
Nina Conti – In Your Face – opened at London’s Criterion Theatre this week and it’s very funny. The man sitting next to me was convulsing with laughter, his arms flailing about as he rocked back and forth. I wondered if he needed a doctor – it turned out the house was packed with them.
In Your Face is very clever. Instead of Conti doing 90 minutes of stand-up accompanied by an array of dummies, she gets unwitting audience members up to perform for the rest of us. I think I’d have asked for a fee. Does Equity know?
The entertainer is a bubbly brunette with bags of charisma and impish charm. She giggles a lot, playfully touching her hair or face, occasionally feigning embarrassment at something said, and comes across as a terribly nice girl from Hampstead – which, indeed, is what she is.
But there’s another side to Nina. This talented and multi-faceted comic creates a variety of characters with their own voices and personalities, some of whom come alive through her dummies, and others that are produced when she puts a half-mask on duped theatre-goers and works their cartoon mouths from behind.
Only one of her regulars from her extensive repertoire, a straight-talking monkey called Monk, makes an appearance. His behaviour at the end of the first act is inspired (I won’t spoil it) and the gag carries on after the interval.
At one point he takes a question and answer session with the audience while his boss lies curled up in a bag (don’t ask). Monk is rude, abrasive and occasionally foul-mouthed but he’s hysterical. He ought to be given his own show.
Nina opens the performance by admitting that 95 per cent will be improvisational. It’s incredibly brave and very daring. Thinking on your feet, with a new, potentially dull, audience every night, would terrify most comedians but she clearly thrives on the challenge.
At the show I watched the entertainer worked her way across the front row (don’t book the front stalls of a show like this unless you want to be targeted) and found that it was mostly an entire family. Ken sold medical supplies, Miranda had been a doctor for just two days, and the patriarch was a retired lawyer. It wasn’t scintillating.
“And what do you do?” she asked, sounding rather like the queen working her way down a line of guests at a reception. All the while you could see her storing information to be used for gags later in the performance.
I yearned for her to stumble across someone with an interesting job, a dominatrix or stuntman, in the audience. I can imagine some nights can be desperate as she searches for someone interesting to help magic up a joke or two.
Later, she swooped on two married anaesthetists in the middle of the stalls (no-one is safe, not even sitting in the middle of a row) and a builder and his girlfriend, bringing them on stage and getting them to perform an extensive routine, in masks, with her providing four distinct personalities for them.
The foursome seemed to genuinely enjoy their time on stage and, reluctantly or not, threw themselves into their roles. It’s amazing how quickly you lose your inhibitions behind a silly, plastic, mouth.
This is very much a show with audience participation so be prepared. It’s not called In Your Face for nothing. Both Nina Conti, and Paul Zerdin, who has just won America’s Got Talent with a vent act, have found that there is life in a vintage variety turn, giving audiences fresh and original comedy, even if it comes through the mouth of a stuffed monkey.
In Your Face is at the Criterion until March 12.
- Nina Conti - In Your Face
Funny and fresh comedy from ventriloquist Nina Conti whose new show, In Your Face, sees audience members playing dummies on stage at London’s Criterion Theatre.