Nina Conti's unusual dating show at Wycombe Swan

Siobhan Newman

Nina Conti's unusual dating show at Wycombe Swan

Nina Conti: The Dating Show

Tuesday, November 9

Wycombe Swan

Could there be anything more contemporary than a comedy show with masks which looks to bring people together?

That’s what Nina Conti is aiming to achieve with The Dating Show, her new touring extravaganza featuring a gallery of latex masks, a cheeky monkey called Monkey, and willing audience members who are up for a laugh and maybe (just maybe) a little bit of romance.

The idea for this matchmaking affair came to Nina pretty much by accident during her previous show with masks, In Your Face.

“When I did masks before with an audience, I often ended up with love matches. The audience members often took it there with their body language.

"They could be a bit friendly and a bit flirty, and I remember thinking, ‘I have to stop things going like this or people will think I’m a sex maniac! What’s the matter with me!?’

"But then I thought that maybe it’s not me forcing it because it’s simply happening every time, so why resist? And why not do something called The Dating Show?”

Nina had performed a few trial runs of her new work at London’s Soho Theatre just before the pandemic struck, and has spent time while away from the stage considering the The Dating Show.

“To avoid it becoming this hetero-normative thing, you want to get everyone involved. In the Soho shows, I opened with Monkey interviewing a bunch of people in the audience, and whoever elicited the most warmth was the person I went with.

"I’m not after eccentrics, just likeability. Then we got them on stage and put a mask on them, and had a very low-key chat about their past relationships and what they were looking for next. Hopefully those we get up could be any kind of person and not just the Cilla Black demographic.”

For around 20 years now, Nina Conti has pretty much cornered the comedy-circuit market in ventriloquism.

For those who haven’t seen her show, this genre might still seem a bit old-fashioned or easy fodder for nightmares thanks to spooky films such as Dead Of Night or Magic where, respectively, Michael Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins went on murderous rampages after being taken over by their ventriloquist dummies.

When Nina was first approached by her old mentor Ken Campbell to consider ventriloquism, she was equally as sceptical.

“I’m lucky to have found it, because I never thought that ventriloquism was a skill worth having. I would never have gone to a ventriloquism show, and when it was suggested to me by Ken I thought he was mad!

"I don’t know if I’ve enhanced it for nostalgia, but there was a definite lightbulb moment. I had been practising with those awful mannequins, and it was so end-of-the-pier and saucy, I didn’t like it.

"But then I remembered this monkey puppet that I stole off a mate, and I wondered if his mouth could move; I had to take some stuffing out and put my hand into his face, and then as soon as he started to talk, I thought ‘woah! Everything you’re saying is coming from a wider place than my own head.’ It was a really good feeling.”

From there, Nina has created lauded shows such as Talk To The Hand and Dolly Mixtures, while her sidekick Monkey has become quite the cult figure.

While there is a lot to love about Nina’s shows, the elaborate masks (which cover the bottom half of a person’s face so that the eyes are on display while Nina adds her voice to proceedings) have added a new dimension to her work.

“We’ll probably be working with about 14 masks in total, as they have to fit the shape of the face or have their skin-tone, and be male or female. I have a macabre dungeon of faces hanging off a rack. It might look a bit S&M! I just ordered a bunch of new ones that you can change by adding a moustache or painting the lips differently.

“First and foremost, it’s a funny show; I’m not actually trying to match-make. It would be very funny if it actually worked out for anybody.”

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