Nina Conti’s The Dating Show returns to the West End this month
That’s precisely the premise of Nina Conti’s The Dating Show – best described as “First Dates re-voiced” – which returns to the West End this month. The brilliant ventriloquist puts audience volunteers in masks and supplies the entire adlibbed conversation. Cupid’s arrows rarely strike but comedy chaos reliably ensues. “The love matches are ridiculously inappropriate,” Nina, 47, tells me. “I had a mother and daughter up for a double date, and the man who should obviously have been the daughter’s date went for the mum.
“I control the jaws, but I get so caught up in it, I forget it’s only me talking. Nobody is upset because nobody is real. It’s not them and it’s not me either, it’s a cartoon.
“I only work with the willing, with people who want to take part, but I avoid the over-keen.”
The masks started as a small segment in Conti’s stage act but romance came up so often the full show became inevitable. Volunteers can only communicate their reactions via facial expressions from the cheeks up. “I try and make my narrative fit their expressions. Sometimes I misread them but it’s satisfying when I get it right.
“Their souls become visible,” she adds, poetically. “They shine through like characters.”
It’s entirely improvised. “I can’t remember any of it; my brain wipes itself clean after every show,” she says.
Mercifully Conti’s mischievous sidekick, her potty-mouthed puppet Monkey, isn’t allowed to snipe at the dating dupes. “He’s there for the selection process but I put him away when the people come up on stage,” Nina explains.
The subversive simian has been with her stage partner ever since she was coerced into taking up ventriloquist by her mentor and lover, the mercurial actor and director Ken Campbell, 20 years ago.
Ken was “an alien genius,” she says, “charismatic in a cult leader type of way; his brain was much faster and unpredictable than anyone else’s.
Their souls become visible. They shine through like characters.
“When he suggested ventriloquism, I was sceptical. I thought ‘That sounds appalling! What am I going to do ventriloquism for? I’m an actress.’ But once I tried it, I realised it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Campbell, who died in 2008 aged 66, launched her in a one-woman farce which he wrote and directed from an outside toilet at London’s Bush Theatre.
“It didn’t take very long to learn [ventriloquism], I didn’t get very far with violin lessons but keeping my face still while talking wasn’t hard. It was harder learning the expressions I wanted Monkey to have.”
The puppet was liberating and cathartic. “I could let Monk say things I’d never have thought of saying. It was so much fun – and so much easier than being alone on stage.
“In real life I often think one thing and then another – it becomes more like an internal dialogue, so it suits me quite well.”
Her path to fame was nothing like those trod by variety ‘vents’ such as Roger de Courcey and Paul Zerdin; and it certainly wasn’t the life she thought she’d lead.
Nina, only child of actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson, read Philosophy at Norwich University before taking up acting. She was with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford before Campbell’s game-changing intervention.
Old-school dolls were the first stumbling block. “I don’t find them nice when they look like they’ll kill you in the night,” she says. But acts like Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop – a sock puppet – helped Nina get over the notion that ventriloquism was a ‘suit-and-mannequin’ affair.
Nina doesn’t watch much stand-up now, and avoids modern ventriloquists
“My route was stand-up comedy clubs and theatre. The glitzy, showbiz route was not my world.”
It wasn’t easy. Conti recalls an early show at Banana Cabaret in Balham. “I’d come from the RSC to a monkey and a handbag. The audience were quite rowdy, they kept buying rounds. As soon as I went on, someone shouted, ‘Get the bloke back’, but when Monkey started talking, they laughed. It was a massive moment.
“I did have trouble following a stripper in Soho once, we were appealing to different parts of the brain…”
She enjoys hecklers. “It’s quite easy to hit back, and they can never say anything worse than what the Monkey says to me…”
In the early days he’d call Nina “a whore”, and in her Bafta-nominated 2012 BBC documentary, A Ventriloquist’s Story: Her Master’s Voice, Monkey asks if it was a coincidence he’d come into her life when she was getting over an abortion.
“He isn’t bound by social norms. He doesn’t have accountability. He’s not real. He isn’t even a Monkey, he’s barely a glove. But he can say the unsayable and it doesn’t feel dangerous.
“It’s a fun way to beat me up,” she adds. “When he calls me a t***, I laugh. His face is so earnest, insults from him are kind of charming. It’s funny, and he’s right. Who am I? What the hell am I doing? What do I know?
“Everything is so complicated now, it’s hard to have an opinion. But mix that up with a puppet and it becomes very liberating. I always go too far, not in terms of disrespecting people, but in terms of shockability.”
Hampstead-born Nina is part-Italian, part-Scottish on her father’s side, and all-Scottish on her mother’s. Her Glaswegian grandfather, Drummond Wilson “wasn’t always polite, but he was funny – he had a comedic rhythm that’s echoed in Monkey.”
I ask what she was like growing up, and she instantly replies, “Morbid!”
The Contis moved to New York where Tom starred in a Broadway show when Nina was five. The family moved in exotic circles, there and in London. She recalls her schoolgirl idol, David Bowie, coming to dinner when she was nine – “I was a kid, what a waste!”
Growing up she also listened to Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, and Tom Waite. “If I could make Monkey sing like Tom Waite, I’d die happy,” she laughs. Her comedy heroes were Billy Connolly and Richard Pryor.
Nina doesn’t watch much stand-up now, and avoids modern ventriloquists. Her own favourites include Spanish vent Senor Wences “who just painted lips and eyes on his hand”
American Ronn Lucas used masked punters first, but what Conti does is different, and it changes every night.
Her talent was recognised quickly; her run of awards began in 2002 and she has been taking hit shows to the Edinburgh Festival since 2007. Her 2016 show, In Your Face had sold-out runs in the West End and off-Broadway.
Nina’s TV work stretches from ITV’s Sunday Night At The Palladium to US TV’s The World’s Best. Since 2018 her YouTube series, In Therapy, has attracted more than 1.5million views.
She’ll take The Dating Show to Edinburgh in August. Her own dating status is hazy. The mother-of-two is separated from comedian husband Stan Stanley.
In Lockdown, Nina “did a little YouTube series, just me and Monkey talking; people often ask if I talk to puppet if no one else is there, as if it’s the first sign of madness. Of course I do! That’s how it comes to life. It’s how it writes itself.” She’s not giving much away beyond Edinburgh. “I have a few things that are currently pre-announce-able. Maybe I’ll do a podcast with Monkey, there will definitely be more on YouTube.”
I ask how she relaxes. “Hard drugs,” she replies instantly, adding, “No – that’s a Monkey answer. I’m more an apple and a good book.
“I do enjoy having a pint after a show…”, to quench the thirst of being on stage for two hours, and possibly to keep that darn primate quiet.
*Tickets for The Dating Show are available from www.ninaontour.com
Published at Sun, 13 Mar 2022 00:01:00 +0000