Coming to this sell-out show completely fresh, my prior knowledge was limited to an understanding of Nina Conti as an established performer with considerable popularity, judging both by my research and the packed house of excitedly expectant audience members on the night that I attended. Bar knowing that Conti is an extremely accomplished ventriloquist, having won a British Comedy Award, and appearing on many high-profile television programmes including Sunday Night at the Palladium and Live at the Apollo, I was unsure what to expect, but was quickly swept up in the hilarity and wit of the piece.
Of course, Conti’s skill in ventriloquism is indeed very impressive, but what I found really interesting was the cleverly constructed and well-paced structure of the production, advertised as being entirely improvised, and there was a delightful subversiveness in the way that events played out. As an RSC-trained actor, Conti presents as a very well-spoken and professional figure, an all the more effective foil for when things take a less than appropriate turn. Her puppet Monkey is the mouthpiece for the more controversial material, to very humorous effect. The level of multi-tasking and innovation here is substantial, with the most appealing section to me being when various members of the audience were invited on stage and fitted with half-masks which Conti was able to operate in perfect timing with specific comedic voices chosen for each person. The awkwardness on the part of the volunteers made this even funnier (with the exception of the inclusion of a twelve-year-old girl who became embarrassed and abruptly left the stage, an incident well handled by Conti).
I was surprised and pleased by the layers inherent in this performance, which seemed to market itself as a production with somewhat mass appeal, whilst actually leaning towards the abstract, and at times, quite dark! That it is a piece in part shaped by the audience makes it exciting, and Conti’s ability in dealing with her volunteers means that the performance pushes some boundaries whilst remaining respectful and genuinely funny. The end section was particularly interesting, stripping bare the illusion of ventriloquism, as Conti lost Monkey but retained his voice, suddenly becoming, in her own words ‘just a woman with a sinister voice’. This was a fascinating resolution, but for me, a little brief. I would have liked to see much more on the theme of this deconstruction, as it spoke so much about the illusions of performance, and for me this was an exciting production that would certainly warrant return visits.