The bizarre art of ventriloquism can be traced back to antiquity – the ability to conjure a disembodied voice allowed the dead to speak, and the imparting of oracular wisdom. But a tawdrier reputation persists today; the association with naff children’s entertainment is hard to dispel, despite the relatively recent tactic of making the puppet or dummy subversively profane.
Over 20 years, Nina Conti has become a doyenne in this skilled but slighted branch of showbiz, and, with her endearing but caustic puppet Monkey, trades in that stark disjunction between her respectable sweetness and his fluffiness-belying filth.
In the past, I’ve admired her talent, enjoyed the “joke”. But I have to confess to being readied to stick her in the usual box – agreeable, forgettable fun – albeit she’s billing her latest offering as “the world’s first ventriloquial dating show”. It’s evidently a departure, but it’s a departure in the direction of the audience, upon whom she’s reliant for volunteers, possibly maximising the discomfort of the casual, rather than fully committed, observer.
For the first few minutes, at Warwick Arts Centre, it feels as though we’re in for a woeful evening. “We work with the willing”, Conti assures us. “We avoid the over-keen,” butts in her Sean Connery-accented handheld foil. But where are the willing?
“Any couples just met?” our vivacious, red-dressed hostess plaintively asks. Nothing. “Anyone met on an app?” Someone calls out, then retracts: “I didn’t mean to put my hand up then.” “That’s what Nina says,” Monkey jests. But once Conti alights on a front-row couple there is no looking back and the evening achieves lift-off.
She alchemises comedy gold from the leaden facts of a first date ensuing from a broken security pass. The bulk of the show’s chat is generated by Conti alone, the participants required to don grotesque-ish face masks, the mouths of which she manipulates by hand in swift sync with whatever she puts in them.
There’s enjoyment, of course, at the embarrassment of those recruited, but Conti’s relaxing warmth acts as a guarantor against cruelty. Just as Monkey enables her to vent a different side to her personality – gruffer, rougher, less inhibited – so the masks are like safety-valves. They’re not just projecting comical personae onto the enforced stooges but releasing something in them.
The first pair evidently delight in re-enacting their first-date at a swimming pool, Conti taking subliminal cues from their body language to steer things along. To itemise all that follows is to set in stone an evening that cannot perforce be repeated. It’s the luck of the draw, but Conti makes her luck too – bringing out an air of romantic abandon in a singleton fitness instructor looking for a mate, achieving quick-fire mirth in a speed-dating round (this time in a stifling, full-size Monkey suit) and building to a finale involving six participants, each given wildly different accents.
It’s head-spinningly clever – like peering inside a fast-whirring brain – and dementedly silly, Conti holding onto the reins of her imagination wherever it veers. Rather than just going through well-worn motions this live-wire act proves she’s at the peak of her powers. And yes, I’m not going to say this out of the side of my mouth but with jaw suitably dropped, it’s borderline genius.
Tours to February 28: ninaconti.net/live