Funny talk as Nina Conti speaks with more than one voice returns to Norfolk
- Credit: Idil Sukan
From rude puppets to turning audience members into real life face-mask wearing puppets, Nina Conti has been busy reinventing the old art of ventriloquist. As she returns with her successful show In Your Face, she tells us more.
Puppet ventriloquist isn't by any means a fashionable area of showbiz. It brings to mind Seaside Special performers, music halls and end of the pier shows from the 1980s with the likes Roger De Courcey of Nookie Bear fame or Keith Harris and Orville.
There are those reviving it however. Paul Zerdin and Steve Hewlett have enjoyed success by giving it a modern spin, while Nina Conti has taken a much more post-modern approach.
With her foul-mouthed companions Monkey and Granny, the 42-year-old won a British Comedy Award for her appearances on Live at the Apollo.
She has also turned her hand to documentary film-making with her most recent exploit Clowning Around (in which she trained as a children's hospital clown) airing to great critical acclaim. Her directorial debut Her Master's Voice, in which she took the bereaved puppets of her mentor, Ken Campbell, to a puppet graveyard in Kentucky won her a BAFTA nomination and a Grierson Award.
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And her latest live show, In Your Face, which she brings back to the region this week, continues to deconstruct and refresh the possibilities of ventriloquism.
Almost entirely improvised, it features audience members wearing masks operated by Conti who puts words into their mouths based on a few gleaned personal details. 'Even with all the people on stage, I am basically talking to myself for two hours,' she laughs.
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Although her much loved simian sidekick Monkey makes an appearance – he makes a great MC and has impeccable judgement when it comes to identifying who will become stage stars for a night – he is no longer the lynchpin of the act.
Conti modestly calls the show 'the blind leading the blind' with material spun from audience members wearing a set of cartoonish face masks. For those chosen their mouth and everything that comes out of it are entirely in her hands.
'I think they can tell I am grateful to have them up there with me' she says, 'and that I would never do anything mean or too outrageous when the mask is on. What comes out is not them and it is not me it is just…all stupid. I think it is noble to be really stupid. None of the comedy that happens makes a point, or is full of clever observation…it just is.'
She draws, she says, on the time she spent as a 'Giggle Doctor' for kids in hospitals with the Theodora Children's Trust. While training for that, Conti did every training course known to the aspirant clown. When people come up onstage and get on their masks, she says, they fall almost immediately under the 'Big Spell' created by laughter and applause.
'When they look some way or do something and they feel or hear the audience respond to that, and know they are responsible for the laughter, they naturally learn from it, and they repeat the action. It is natural to be eager to please. This is really classic clown school training – learning through improvisation.'
And once her people find their own inner clown, with a little vocal help from Nina, they do the most extraordinary things.
'People are altered by hearing a different kind of voice coming out of their mouths' says Nina. 'Altered', she reveals, to the extent that one show involved two big old Liverpudlian blokes lap-dancing for each other, and entire families volunteering together, creating a soap opera involving a pregnancy with the baby being delivered 'live' onstage.
Through the whole crazy thing, Nina says that her own inner monologue is saying 'don't get in the way, don't get in the way! Just voice it!' which is at once unassuming for a star in her own show, and showing as much trust in her participants as they place in her.
The audience is about as varied as audiences get: young and old, boys and girls, even Stags and Hens on occasion. What she calls her 'hungry hawk-eye' is always looking for body language and expressions that guide the voices she puts in their 'mouths'. Just occasionally, when unleashing a audience's inner entertainers, she has to consult what she calls her 'moral compass'.
'Sometimes you get a bloke up onstage who gets...' she pauses to consider her phrasing 'all thrusty'.
She goes on: 'The audience will always tell you what is OK. You can feel it. And if they get thrusty to absolute silence, then they do not do it again. It is a bit rude sometimes. I do have that problem. I do love silly playground stuff.'
Nina herself is from a theatrical family. Her father is Tom Conti and her mother Kara Wilson was also an actress. Was there ever any chance that she might get a real job?
'My dad left school at 14 but my mum was a good girl and she went to university, so I think I got the 'good girl' vibe from her and I did go to university and studied philosophy but...' she sighs 'they all just seemed to be having such a laugh, the actors. It is a very seductive business.'
'I was never very good at playing on my own, which is a bit of a downer for an only child,' she says of her childhood. 'I always co-opted mum or dad into my playing. So I think when I started the ventriloquism thing, it was really me working out how to play on my own.'
Ventriloquism, amazingly enough, did not start until she was 27. But she loves performing this latest show. 'If I have had a s*** day… as soon as I am onstage, and the people are up there and the fun is happening, everything is just wonderful'.
• Nina Conti is at King's Lynn Corn Exchange on November 13, 7.30pm, £21.50, 01553 764864, kingslynncornexchange.co.uk