Comedian and ventriloquist Nina Conti this month returns to the region with The Dating Show. Completely improvised each night, the show is being described as ‘a spectacular feat of ventriloquism’. Happily for us, Nina was anything but tight-lipped when we asked her about what audiences can expect... 

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 a handful of willing audience members who are up for a laugh and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of romance.

The idea for this new 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 wasn’t me forcing it, because it was simply happening every time, so why resist? And why not do something called The Dating Show?”

Nina performed a few trial runs of the show at London’s Soho Theatre just before the pandemic struck. In the months which followed, she honed the show further. “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 displayed 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 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. Nina was sceptical about it herself at first too, when it was suggested to her by her old mentor, Ken Campbell: “I would never have gone to a ventriloquism show, and when Ken suggested it, I was completely uninterested. I thought he was mad! But then there was a definite lightbulb moment. I’d 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, but 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.”

Nina has since created numerous critically acclaimed shows, while sidekick Monkey has become quite the cult figure. 

“I don’t actually think the ventriloquial aspect is my show’s best selling-point. It’s a side-issue that needs to be overcome, given that it still has a bad rap. I don’t think people leave my shows thinking, ‘Oh, that was a good ventriloquist show’. I think you can forget it’s a ventriloquist show. I know I do, to the point where, later, I think, ‘Oh, did I do the ventriloquist bits?’ I can get a bit carried away!” 

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. The guy I use is a ventriloquist in the Philippines, and his masks are very robust. But they really have to be. It’s awful if they stop working halfway through because if that happens, the magic breaks.”

Nina is keen to keep her show fresh, and to make it as different as possible each and every night: “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. The first time I did Live At The Apollo, I got a couple up and there seemed to be romance in the air, but I suspect they filed out of the theatre their separate ways. But I’m putting songs in. I did an improvathon with the Showstoppers guys, making a song up as we go. I’m really bad at singing, but it’s funny when the date breaks into song. And it turns out that a bad song is better than no song!” 

Nina Conti brings The Dating Show to The Alexandra, Birmingham, on Mon 8 November, and then visits Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, on Sat 20 November