In the West End’s Criterion Theatre, Nina Conti’s ventriloquist act In Your Face is a hilarious mix of deadpan ventriloquism and side splitting audience participation.
In Your Face is 90% improvisation and 10% pure Nina Conti talent. However, the success of the show is not wholly dependent on the lucky picks from the audience. Conti has the talent to pick up on the smallest gestures from the volunteer and run with them. She exaggerates their smallest idiosyncrasies to uproarious effect. Yet, unlike a lot of comedy that’s reliant on audience participation, Conti doesn’t berate or embarrass her volunteers. Due to the use of the masks, she gives the audience no responsibility to be funny or witty but it inevitably seems that all the comedy is generated by them.
The most anticipated aspects of her set are with her deadpan monkey side kick called Monk. The humour comes from the inexplicable way Monk interjects her sentences. This cheeky monkey ridicules Conti more than anyone else. It somewhat seems to embarrasses her, for example as an audience member came on stage Monk said “Nina fancies you!”
Conti includes a hilarious song played by the puppet’s face. It is comical because the puppet has such a personality you feel a bit sorry for it, but it also makes light of how ridiculous ventriloquism can be. There is also a moment in the show when Conti gets into a massive black bag so the audience have a chance to have a one-on-one with the puppet. The comedy comes from the obviousness of Conti not being able to see and having to shoot blind whilst taking audiences questions.
There is a down fall of the show which could have (and should have) been easily picked up by Conti. Her volunteers from the audience who were wearing the masks kept facing to the side. A little thing but it made a huge difference to the impact of the masks. For a large majority of the performance, the nervous volunteers faced Conti so the audience lost half the view of the masks. This is mask work 101; always make sure it can be seen. By making a simple joke of this to her participants and getting to face the audience, could have increased the enjoyment of the performance tenfold.
On the other hand, now a day’s you’d think ventriloquism and mask work wouldn’t stand a chance of being in a West End Theatre at all. It might be seen as dated and clichéd to such a technological age. However, the refreshing simplicity of In Your Face is so hilarious and ingeniously put together, that it’s a delightful change seeing it on the main stages. Just remember: only sit on the front row if you’re feeling brave!
Nina Conti: In Your Face is playing at the Criterion Theatre until 12 March 2016. For more information and tickets see www.criterion-theatre.co.uk