“Love is very important to bring onstage with you. That’s where the ‘funny’ is. I find the things which are endearing the funniest.” Nina Conti is certain she wants her craft to bring people together. Perhaps literally…
The ventriloquist’s new tour, The Dating Show, seems to be a natural progression for her use of remote controlled face-masks. With a couple of willing audience members, she’s been able to create any number of strange new realities. And every night, these characters kept falling in love – regardless of what the hapless volunteers may have wanted. “They’re not really themselves anymore when they’re up there. It’s a joint effort between me and them, which creates a different character. Those different characters kept falling in love. So, I thought I’d just go with it.”
The British Comedy Award winner admits she’s being quite broad with the show’s dating element. “Originally, I thought I’m going to go for proper dating show, but then realised we’d end up with a hetero-normative ‘phwoar get-it-on’ show, and that really icks me out. So, I’m just trying to create encounters which are funny, surprising and absurd.”
Offering a mixture of comedy, improvisation and ventriloquism, along with the randomness of audience participation, it’s a big task to bring order to the chaos. There needs to be a significant amount of observation when dealing with her participants. And Conti freely admits there’s nothing they can do which she won’t narrate. Although it’s being done with a sense of love and playfulness.
One show featured a gentleman who had the habit of throwing his head up when laughing. “Every time he laughed, I had him shout: ‘TAKE ME TO THE MOON!’ I don’t know why it was so funny, but everybody loved him. He didn’t know what was going on and kept doing the thing that made everybody love him. It was like we spiralled into a vortex. It was so sweet.” It almost seems like there’s a private mission to see how much she can get away with. There’s an admission it’s sometimes fun to get married couples up. Their physicality can speak volumes about the things they’re sick of and what they’re endeared towards.
Most of the training, or at least the elements most useful to her, have been on the job. While she didn’t go to a traditional drama school, there was a spell at clown academy – learning the theatrical art of turning up with nothing and trying to create something honest. The biggest impact on her professionally was the Jedi-style mentorship she received from the singular, and occasionally commercially awkward, genius of the late Ken Campbell. His almost transcendental brand of comedy and absurdism brought together a sizeable following. “He was basically loyal to what was funny more than anything. I wish I could describe him. He was quite something.” Always rallying against the traditional path of comedy, in search of something more impossible and unpredictable, his first task for his student was to get herself some false teeth.
Armed with a photo of Béatrice Dalle squirting milk through a gap in her teeth and down her breasts, the young Conti was sent across London to an Orthodox Jewish orthodontist in Stamford Hill. “That’s a scene in my life I’ll never forget. It was an initiation process.” Other lessons involved a broad range of established performance forms, and some notably less traditional. She was sent to a throat-singing teacher, regularly taking an epic journey with three trains and a bus to learn how to create notes at the same time. “This was before the internet. Where would you find these eccentricities? He’d be like: ‘That’s not eccentric, it’s an ancient artform.’ He seemed to have a different compass from everyone else.” After seven years of working with him, the final ‘gift’ he gave her was ventriloquism. It could be argued the entire time was about promoting new ways of thinking and approaching her art.
“You’re always searching for the ‘other.’ I often ask: ‘What would Ken do?’ And it brings a more creative thought out. ‘When you worked with Ken, it marked you for life,’ is what Bob Hoskins said at his funeral. He was too strong a flavour to ever forget about.” It’s an insight into someone who pushes the boundaries of what ventriloquism can, or should, be. We’re thankfully far beyond the days of an old chap with a demonic-looking dummy, and now at the point where almost anything can happen. Those she brings up onstage are eternally eager to see what she makes of them, almost to the point of being suggestable.
“I think they feel a freedom that wasn’t expected when putting the mask on. They have a lot of power and can get a laugh from doing something very minor – like shrugging shoulders. If you say the right line when they do that, and it doubles down, then it becomes a game with the audience. They don’t have to be themselves, so I think people find it liberating.” There seems to be an earnest joy from clashing together different people and finding some warmth in their interactions. “I’m not a stranger to the occasional dick-joke. I’m not going to be able to hold it all back and make it beautiful and wonderful. But the spirit I’m going into is one of love.”
There’s still a part for her most famous character Monkey – the much-loved brash simian who quite possibly offers her an unfiltered voice. Although Conti feels she may be becoming more like him in her social life. Either she’s becoming bolder in real-life, or there’s a strange integration occurring. “There’s a ‘be good’ thing you can’t get rid of, which was in my upbringing. Instantly that creates a gap. What if I’m not? I was trying to present as good all my life, in order to be liked or accepted. But when Monkey says all these things, he’s a lot more popular,” she says with a giggle. “I must have been barking up the wrong tree all this time.”
Nina Conti’s The Dating Show comes to Brighton Dome on Tue 30 Nov 2021, 7.30pm (doors 6.30pm)
Grab your tickets here > brightondome.org