Nina Conti: a great show
Nina Conti is on the road this autumn and the sell-out show is really marvellous. It is clever, sharp and charming – rather as the on-stage presence of its star.
That’s the great relief, really. So much modern comedy is sourly dissident and drearily self-absorbed. Women bang on about the awfulness of men; lesbians about society’s response to them; lefties about the state of the world. It’s all familiar to the point of nausea. Nina Conti, by contrast, has a cheerful smile and gleaming locks. She is clearly proud of her legs, and they are great. She is a dazzler.
She wowed the audience in Wimborne, in Dorset, where I saw the show. We were a very mixed bunch of retirees and – if Ms Conti’s targets amongst them are to be believed – (relative and actual) youngsters, including a prison warder, a mental heath worker, an air traffic controller, an NHS worker, a banker and a couple in advertising.
Her schtick is robust but also very refined. From Nina Conti: Her Master’s Voice, a clever and really rather harrowing documentary about her appearance at a ventriloquists’ competition in the States, one knew that she had down all the post-modern, point-of-view, existential parsing of ventriloquism which we are bound to need. All this had been heading her way since she fell under the spell of Ken Campbell (qv), whom she channels, in what she finds a limitless but tricky responsibility. (I am extremely unsympathetic to his Laingian view – which he attributes to Schiller – that madness is sort of good, and that ventriloquists have access to its creativity. Anyway….)
Her cross, loud mouth Monkey and she do a quick run-round of these games, and they are breathtakingly quick and clever. But then her other characters are allowed to be much more touching. Her pit bull dog reminds one of the shark in Finding Nimo, but pushes the conflicted predator stuff much further. Her daughter-puppet is a very feeling exploration of the fragile knowingness of the young and the slight and fragile advantage parents have over their children as they leverage a longer experience for all it’s worth. Her Polish builder is a joy, and is a side-splitting example of Ms Conti’s use of the audience, which is presumably sort-of fixed, sort-of spontaneous. He is also an example of the way Nina Conti delivers conventional comedy on sexual manners and politics, but steers well clear of negativity. Her two old-folk puppets play great very good games with us.
It’s a mark of the quality of this show that I have been picking bits of it out of my teeth all day, as two or three layers of joke have unfolded themselves.
Indeed, the whole process makes one wonder where this could go. Miss Conti is a sort of one-woman Muppet show. But her characters also make one feel that someone very clever at Disney could somehow deploy these skills. I have a sort of yen to see Nina Conti develop a political or intellectual character. But maybe we should just be pleased that we have what we have.