Last night we saw Nina Conti, at Menier’s Chocolate Factory, in her new show, Dolly Mixture. She’s a ventriloquist (She's also Tom Conti's daughter) but her show was much more adult entertainment than children’s party.
Her show consisted of six different puppets, all of them very different. There was the tactless monkey, Monk, who has made Nina Conti’s names, plus five new characters; her eight year old daughter, her reformed rescue dog, a randy polish builder, her Irish Aunt who has reached the age where she no longer gives a f*ck and one of her old professors who has lived so long that he doesn’t want to have to carry on living any longer. The humor here was very adult, plenty of jokes about sex and even death, and not once did she drink a glass of water while the puppet chatted on.
This was certainly a “work in process” show, some of the characters/puppets didn’t work as well as others and some of the humor didn’t as flow as smoothly in some places, but still it was far better than a lot of comedy I’ve been exposed to; it made me laugh. Nina Conti certainly has an eye and an ear for characters, but unusual characters. Her puppets aren’t the standard stereotypes beloved of traditional ventriloquists, they were far too off-the-wall.
As a child I’d never warmed to ventriloquists, they were always very clever but the puppets never seemed to come alive with their characters. This was the nineteen-seventies and we still had the tradition of Music Hall and Working Men’s clubs. Ventriloquists fell into the traditional double-act, a straight-man who feed the feed-lines to the comic, the ventriloquist being the straight-guy and the doll was the comic. Their routines were that of line joke, line joke, line joke; their routines weren’t the character driven stories that was the main stay of Nina Conti’s show.
To Nina Conti her puppets were more than just props on her knee, she interacted with them. She made eye contact with them, reacted to them, she even laughed at their comments, but she was far more than the straight-man feeding lines for the jokes. At times it felt as if she didn’t know what the puppet was going to say, even though she’d obviously worked closely on her show. She has taken character driven comedy and applied it to the ventriloquist act, giving us something fresh and interesting.
I have always enjoyed character driven comedy over stand-up joke telling, the jokes coming out of a character’s reaction to a situation, rather than the smart put-downs of a comic. Nina Conti certainly performs the comedy I enjoy and she has breathed life into the stale old ventriloquist’s act.
Watch some videos of Nina Conti’s act here, on YouTube.