Nina Conti tickles the ribs at Lytham Festival


When I looked at the Lytham Festival Facebook trailer for Nina Conti’s visit to the Lowther Pavilion soon after it was posted there were four comments. Two of these were people tagging their partners (I assume) and suggesting they go together.  The other two were responses from those partners saying they didn’t want to attend an event featuring a one trick pony. So clearly Nina is a performer who divides opinion – but is it fair to suggest she is limited, and if she is entertaining does it matter?

The opening to Nina’s routine, an exchange with Monk the Monkey, was endearingly self-deprecating about the current popularity of ventriloquism acts.  Most ventriloquists… are no longer with us, most ventriloquists… are homeless and destitute, most ventriloquists… die on cruise ships etc. But a good turnout in the Lowther Pavilion were clearly still fans of the genre, albeit an audience well aware of the potential embarrassment of being asked on stage. Even approaching show time there were still empty seats on the front row of a very busy venue as people tried to minimize their chance of becoming the entertainment and not the audience. A tip if you go to a future variation on this show – don’t shout wisecrack questions as you put yourself right in the firing line.

The trademark masks were draped from a stand on the stage, there were no fewer than 15.  Conti soon explained that these wouldn’t all be used, and that the show was going to include a high degree of improvisation. Inevitably the front row was the initial source of comedic exchanges, before a couple were given the infamous mask treatment in turn.

Whilst most people are probably now familiar with the core act it may well have surprised many members of the audience how versatile Nina can be. At one point there were five people on stage with her and she was still able to maintain interactions involving her working through a range of accents whilst still improvising brilliantly.

One of the real joys of this show is the way that the selected audience members get comfortable with their role. They are told that there is no pressure on them because Nina is playing all the parts, and gradually they accept this and begin to varying degrees to throw themselves into it and even get mischievous.

Naturally any comedy with a high element of improvisation will ebb and flow a bit, but overall the laughs came thick and fast. For much of the time the receptive audience were in uproar. It is difficult to argue with Brian Logan’s recent assessment in The Guardian that it’s inconsequential but nevertheless richly entertaining.  The evening was also set up well with an entertaining set by local comedian Phil Walker (aka son of Roy), more conventional stand up but with far more hits than misses.

Being picky it was probably an unnecessary risk to include some new face masks, one of these presumably hadn’t been tested fully and didn’t work. Above all the short finale, in which Nina became a puppet, was rather anti-climactic. It might have been clever to further subvert the genre, unfortunately it just wasn’t very funny. It is probably difficult to do an effective encore with a ventriloquism act, but it was unfortunate that a high quality show should end on its weakest link.

Overall Nina Conti offers a refreshing ventriloquism act, the use of human ‘dummies’ adds something to it but if that was all she brought to the party she probably would be on the cruise ships by now. However she is a brilliant improvisation comic who happens to use the medium of ventriloquism. If you missed this golden opportunity to see her locally maybe you can catch her at The Lowry on 23 October, you won’t regret it.

Image courtesy of Cuffe & Taylor.

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