23rd October 2016
This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub and published here.
It’s fair to say that ventriloquism doesn’t usually attract audiences the way that straight stand-up does. Mostly it just isn’t very cool. But Nina Conti definitely is, strutting around the stage in high-heeled boots and a stylish minidress. Her show In Your Face, which is touring following a residence at the West End’s Criterion Theatre, mixes some prepared material with audience Q&A and improvised interactivity.
In Your Face takes an innovative twist on ventriloquism – puppet/mask hybrids that can be strapped on to audience members’ faces – and runs with it. The first half features some hilarious improvisation where individual members of the audience are made to say all kinds of things as Conti manipulates their masks, egging them on to respond with actions while they visibly shake with laughter at her quick wit. There’s comedy genius in the way she reads their gestures and builds up a whole ‘conversation’ with the character she’s created. This develops to a climax at the close of the show, as Conti stages an anarchic, theatrical set-piece featuring five people wearing these masks at once, all voiced by her in a range of accents and styles.
Framing the improv, there’s material featuring Monkey, her subversive yet surprisingly cute sidekick. It’s a highlight of the evening when Nina and Monkey play guitar ‘together’, including one uproarious bit of physical comedy as Nina tries to carry Monkey, a chair and the guitar to the front of the stage at the same time. This is just one of several imaginatively staged sections that Conti performs with Monkey, keeping the show varied and intriguing to the very end.
Conti’s slick, self-referential style makes Monkey’s material feel just as satisfying as it is comedic. The threadbare puppet breaks the illusion of puppetry at just the right moments – he gives a hilariously deadpan answer when an audience member asks how old he is, for instance. Monkey’s material also makes fun of Conti in ways that hint towards some of the traditional ‘self-conscious stand-up’ jokes: we’re narcissists; we can’t do anything except comedy; we’re useless. These parts of the show are great comedy, as well as great ventriloquism, and a testimony to Conti’s talent and intelligence.
The improvised Q&A and climactic group scene are more variable than the prepared parts, understandably, and one of the audience members whom Conti invites onstage is a little more boisterous than the rest, making lewd gestures and stealing the show at times. Whether this sort of stuff adds to the comedy or detracts from it is very much a matter of opinion, and Conti perhaps struggles occasionally to stay in the spotlight in the face of such antics. But building a whole group improv/ventriloquism/mime finale from scratch with members of the audience is astonishingly ambitious, and Conti should be applauded for that, even if the ‘safer’ parts of her act are stronger.
Star rating: **** Ambitious and hilarious