Nina Conti: In Your Face | Review by Steve Bennett

Nina Conti: In Your Face

Review by Steve Bennett

'Most ventriloquists...' Nina Conti explains. ‘…die on cruise ships,' her incorrigible Monkey concludes.

But despite the jokes about the form’s obsolescence, for a very few - Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator, and now British America's Got Talent champ Paul Zerdin - it can prove a highly lucrative endeavour.

As she has done so often before, Conti spurns a lot of her artform's conventions.  So while a memorable foam sidekick is the normal route to riches, her blunt-talking ‘Monk’ plays second fiddle to the audience in her West End debut.

That a vent has her own London stage show in 2016 might be a big enough surprise; that she's doing it with an improvised offering even more so. But following the success of Showstoppers and the revived Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and the groundwork done by Austentatious, the ad-libbed form is making notable incursions into Theatreland.

So after the well-rehearsed opening with her simian sidekick – now-staple Conti routines mocking the artifice and offering just a twist on the usual 'your hand's up my arse' deconstruction – she untethers from her script and looks to the audience for inspiration.  

Her tools are the masks that cover the lower face enabling her to make human puppets of her volunteers, a squeeze of a bulb operating the jaw as she puts words in their mouth.

What makes this work so convincingly is the way she picks the perfect cartoon caricature for each patsy.  She picks up on their little movements, their hesitancy about what is demanded of them, and creates instant characters that seem real and alive despite all the artifice, exaggeration and awkwardness in the subjects’ movements. A rather reluctant subject, for instance, becomes a dry Russian with the quickly amusing catchphrase 'I don't understand’. 

For starters, she mines their occupations - surprisingly biased towards the medical tonight - getting them to mime out the ins and outs of their job. The misunderstandings are entertaining, but when the interval is called after little more than half an hour of this you may be forgiven for wondering if this jazzed-up version of every compere's '...and what do you do?' shtick is quite enough to justify those West End prices.

Such misgivings evaporate thanks to the anaesthetist drawn out the crowd in the second half, who throws herself into the playful physicality of the situation, as Conti brilliantly imagines her as a jaunty Germanic oddball, joyfully plotting her husband’s demise. It’s a silly, funny segment that builds up to an all-dancing line-up, hilariously manic in its over-reaching ambition.

Conti’s easy laugh at her own mischief enlivens the performance, appearing genuinely surprised at where her  mind leads her.  To improvise alone, spinning off a multi-character narrative – even a silly one – from the merest tics requires both technical mastery and the leap of faith in your abilities not to think about any of that to impulsively work in the moment. That Conti achieves this so apparently effortlessly, generating uncomplicated laughs from a complicated set-up, is a triumph.

After the climax of this section, there’s a peculiarly half-hearted ending, a surprise for a performer who’s often built to big finishes. But when she’s masterminding mayhem, the show’s a joy.

Review date: 2 Mar 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Criterion Theatre

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