Review: Nina Conti, Soho Theatre

nina conti

Ventriloquist Nina Conti has always been an intriguing performer. Whereas an arena-filler like Jeff "I Kill You!" Dunham plays the genre largely for easy laughs, Conti is more ambitious, constantly breaking down the barrier between performer, puppet and audience. When she laughs at something unspeakably crude that her toy monkey Monk has just said about someone in the front row, it is as if she has heard it for the first time and he shouldn't be saying it, when it is actually Conti that is saying it. I've seen this laughing-at-her-own-gags schtick many times but she does it so well it always works.

Conti's Soho run, initially reviewed in the Evening Standard here, coincided with her Bafta nomination for Best Documentary for her self-funded film Her Master's Voice, in which she visited Vent Haven, the weird town in America where ventriloquists congregate. The doc is poignant, touching and weird as she talks to herself, talks to her dolls and talks to other people who have strangely intimate relationships with inanimate blocks of wood. Her live show, running at the Soho Theatre until May 25, works as a brilliant companion piece to the documentary. It is not as thought-provokingly deep but it cannot help also touching on the strangeness of treating a puppet as if it is alive. And, in a couple of showstopping set-pieces, it shows how puppetry can really take you over. Don't keep your mouth shut, spread the word.

 

Nina Conti’s show is called Dolly Mixtures but a better title might have been Baggage. The vivacious ventriloquist is surrounded onstage by holdalls in which her supporting cast lurk. One-by-one they emerge during a performance peppered with comic thrills and surprises.

The framework is Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, with puppets representing each age, but Conti has taken a few liberties.

I do not recall a pink-ribboned pit bull with an attitude problem in the Bard’s version. Or a floppy six-foot handyman called Stefan who, with help from an obliging fan, flirts with the host with her hand wedged up his neck.

Baggage could also hint at the quasi-therapy element here. Conti has always been intrigued by the psychology of her genre. Her documentary dissecting the discipline, Her Master’s Voice, is up for a Bafta this Sunday and on the Soho stage it is particularly disquieting when she introduces us to herself as an eight-year-old rag doll: “I’m you before you became odd,” explains the precocious pre-teen.

This, however, is nowhere near as disturbing as the vent-act involving volunteers donning masks to become human puppets, with Conti providing the cheeky dialogue. After that a more sentimental finale involves granny doing some mind-reading and granddad opting for a spot of euthanasia. Dolly Dignitas, perhaps.

Despite the existential themes, however, the emphasis is on giggly fun rather than anything really heavy. At barely an hour, there’s certainly no excess baggage.

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