Nina Conti is never alone. Which is a remarkable thing given the ventriloquist’s most famous comedy partner is an acerbic and insouciant monkey who’d rather be atop Hampstead Heath — “probably reading Proust” — than onstage.
“In many respects he can say things that everybody is thinking,” she says of her simian friend, “but not always. Sometimes he says things that I, or no one, would dare think. But sometimes he says awful stuff, awful sexist stuff about women — and not the truth. It’s just an occurring thought in my head so I throw it out there.
“But,” she adds, “You have to get in a situation, and then you have to get out of it.”
It’s a sentence which concisely defines the fun and premise of her latest show.
In Your Face arrives at Criterion Theatre in February and is a unique experience for every audience, with Conti improvising a new show each night with a little help from her puppet friends and the seemingly bottomless bag of tricks she carries on stage.
“The notion of improvisation has always been very daunting to me, the thought of not knowing what to say next is still scary, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about creating an environment where things must happen, and you have to make something happen by throwing ingredients into the petri dish instead of having some brilliant stream of consciousness that comes out fully formed. It’s like having a mess that we are all navigating.”
‘All’ being the operative word, for her puppet friends also include members of the audience, albeit masked for Conti’s bidding.
“The ‘skin’ of a new clown is created each time someone comes on stage, which is formed as soon as you take the person’s power away,” she says. “Though, it is empowering overall as something happens when you put the mask on: they are not quite themselves and the anonymity sets them free.”
A clip of such audience involvement, from Conti’s Live At The Apollo appearance last month, has now reached over 10 million views on social media:
The greatest ventriloquist act you’ll ever seeDisturb Reality
Posted by Disturb Reality on Friday, 18 December 2015
Although, naturally, Monkey remained unimpressed by such popularity and was quick to voice his displeasure on Twitter:
@ninaconti sickening that I’m not even in it
— Monkey (@monkeyconti) January 5, 2016
Then again, Conti and Monkey are never really apart.
“The illusion of not being alone does make me feel safe,” says Conti, “it suits me to have these multiple voices, and is more fun as I don’t really like having to commit to one voice.”
Her career reflects her multifaceted inner voices. Conti is simultaneously known for her popular TV performances and also for the depth of her reflective documentary Her Master’s Voice, which is as much about bereavement as it is about ventriloquism. Indeed, nor does ventriloquism alone fully explain the tapestry of different influences and comedic subgenres that are going on during a Conti show: “I’ve taken from a lot of different areas. It started as a combination of ventriloquism and acting. Then it slowly grew with a bit of improv and exploded with the introduction of clown techniques.”
But it was stand-up comedy which allowed Conti the room to experiment: “Stand-up was the world I entered into, it was the door that was most open to what I was doing,” she says of her earliest gigs at the Banana Cabaret Club in Balham. And comedy recognised Conti. In 2002 she picked up the BBC New Comedy Award and later a Barry Award — one of the most prestigious comedy prizes — at the Melbourne Festival in 2008.
“I feel I have grown this act from my bedroom, created in a void of its own weird existence,” she says, “I wonder what the definition of stand-up is… I don’t really know. My shows are a ‘dual-logue’ and not a monologue and that’s really different I think.”
Whatever it is, this dual-logue gives Conti the freedom to always feel she is among friends, rather than alone.
“The interiority that monkey displays, the dialogue in the head is something that people feel is very familiar with, even if they’re not ventriloquists.”