COULD there be anything more contemporary than a comedy show with masks that seeks to bring people together?
This is what Nina Conti is aiming for with The dating showhis extravagant new tour featuring a gallery of latex masks, a cheeky monkey called Monkey, and willing onlookers who are ready for a laugh and maybe a little romance.
The idea for this new twinning affair, which visits the New Theater Oxford on Sunday January 23, came to Nina pretty much by accident while performing her previous show with masks, In your face.
“When I was doing front masks with an audience, I often ended up with love matches,” she says. “Viewers often took it there with their body language.
“They could be a little friendly and a little flirty and I remember thinking ‘I have to stop things like this or people will think I’m a sex freak. What’s wrong with me?’
“But then I thought maybe it wasn’t me forcing it because it happened every time, so why resist?” And why not do something called The dating show?”
Nina had performed a few test runs of her new work at London’s Soho Theater just before the pandemic hit, and spent time away from the stage thinking about how best to The dating show progress.
“To keep it from becoming this heteronormative thing, you want to involve everyone,” she says.
“In the Soho shows, I started out with Monkey interviewing a bunch of people in the audience and the one that got the most heat was the person I was going with. I’m not after eccentrics, just sympathy .
“Then we got them on stage, put a mask on them and had a very low-key conversation about their past relationships and what they were looking for next.
“Hopefully the ones we raise could be any type of person and not just the Cilla Black demographic.”
For about 20 years, Nina has pretty much cornered the comedic circuit market in ventriloquism.
For those who haven’t seen his show, this genre may still seem a bit old-fashioned,
When Nina was first approached by her former mentor Ken Campbell to consider ventriloquism, even she was skeptical. She says, “I’m lucky to have found it because I never thought ventriloquism was a worthwhile skill.
“I would never have gone to a ventriloquism show and when it was suggested to me by Ken I was not interested at all. I thought he was crazy.
“I don’t know if I enhanced it for nostalgia, but there was one specific moment of blistering. I didn’t like it. Then I remembered that monkey puppet I had stolen from a mate and wondered if its mouth could move.
“I had to pull out some padding and put my hand in his face and then as soon as he started talking I thought ‘Whoa! Everything you’re saying is coming from a wider place than my own. head. It was a really good feeling.”
From there, Nina created critically acclaimed shows that audiences flocked to, while her sidekick Monkey became a cult figure.
And yet, she’s a lone ventriloquist figure in the world of modern comedy — a fact that surprises her.
“I’m happy to be alone, even if I have the feeling that there is one coming,” she says. “I don’t think the ventriloquial aspect is the biggest selling point of my show.
“It’s a secondary issue that needs to be overcome, given that he still has a bad reputation.
“I don’t think people leave my shows thinking, ‘Oh, that was a good ventriloquist show. I think you can forget this is a ventriloquist show. I know so – to the point that later I think, “Oh, did I do the ventriloquist pieces?” I can get carried away a little. »
While there’s a lot to like about Nina’s shows, the elaborate masks, which cover the lower half of a person’s face so the eyes are exposed while Nina adds her voice to the proceedings, added a whole new dimension. at his work.
“We’ll probably be working with about 14 masks in total because they have to match the shape of the face or match their skin tone and be masculine or feminine,” she says.
“I have a gruesome dungeon of faces hanging from a rack. It might sound a little S&M. I just ordered a bunch of new ones that you can change up by adding a mustache or painting the lips differently.
“The guy I use is a ventriloquist in the Philippines and his masks are very sturdy. breaks off.
Having strong, reliable masks solves a potential problem, but the element of risk remains as Nina is keen on keeping the job fresh and making it as different as possible each night.
She may have a structure in mind when she takes the stage, but working from a script is a strict no-no. And to further increase the risk factor, she added a musical element to The dating show.
“First and foremost, it’s a fun show,” says Nina. “I don’t really try to match. It would be very funny if it worked for anyone.
“The first time I did Living at the ApolloI had a couple and there seemed to be romance in the air, but I suspect they walked out of the theater on their own.
“But I put songs on – I did an ‘improvathon’ with the guys from Showstoppers, creating a song as I went. I’m really bad at singing but it’s funny when the date turns into a song.
• Tickets for Nina Conti The dating show at the New Theater Oxford costs from £28.90 plus booking fee. Stage time is 7:30 p.m. For more information and to book, visit www.atgtickets.com