When we saw Nina Conti in Edinburgh 5 years ago we worried that an hour of ventriloquism might be just a little too much. Now with her show, Nina Conti – In Your Face filling in at The Criterion Theatre while The Comedy About A Bank Robbery takes a holiday* she’s giving us 90 minutes of her time. Plenty to fret about then.
Though it’s not 90 minutes as it turns out. The running time includes a rather gratuitous interval which comes when her most famous glove, Monkey, puts her in a trance.
Brilliant and as rude as Monkey is, sadly it’s the only puppet in this show unless you count her deftly manipulated conscripts from the audience. Those invited up on stage are supplied with a strap-on (mask) and a silly voice from Conti. Not hard to believe the show is 90% improvised. No need for spoiler alerts here.
Conti deconstructs the art of ventriloquism throughout the show; Monkey accompanies her as she strums a guitar in the number “My Face Hurts When I Play the Guitar” (think about it). Though even some of the Monkey business is improvised; Conti clambers into a sack leaving only her puppet hand to take questions from the audience.
And there’s loads of interaction, so don’t sit near the front or engage in the shout outs unless you want to appear on a West End stage with a strap-on. Conti must have felt all her Chritmasses had come at once when she discovered 4 sisters in the front row, one of whom was a trampoline coach and a later “victim”, Martine from Bromley, who was there with “just a friend”, Peter, who apparently was going off to be “f***ed by Alice after the show. And she’s so whip-smart she surely can’t have been unaware of the ambiguity of asking a gay couple “What’s your status?”.
As if she didn’t make life difficult enough for herself, she builds up to fielding 5 audience “volunteers” at once, all masked up and even allowing them to control their own mouth operating buttons. How she keeps track of them, their various distinct accents (French, Scottish, Mid-West American etc) and even choreographs them in a dance routine (of sorts) whist sustaining the hilarity is a thing of wonder. Conti appears in an agreeably Sixties Sandie Shaw inspired outfit complete with hold ups, which appeared to be the only thing she did not have complete control of.
Was our previous ecstatic response and 5 glass rating a result of the “Edinburgh Effect” (where we bestowed our maximum rating with gay abandon). Would watching it in London on a wet Saturday afternoon in an almost sober state reduce our previous enthusiasm?
*Not a holiday, the cast are off filming Peter Pan Goes Wrong for Christmas telly.