The sort of variety acts that were a staple of British TV up until the 1980s have largely disappeared (while Britain’s Got Talent may have brought it back to primetime, it still exists pretty much in isolation). And with the death of variety, ventriloquism pretty much disappeared too.
However in the last few years Nina Conti has slowly but surely been rising up the comedy ranks and becoming more of a household name. To be honest she ought to be more famous than she is, as her CV includes appearances in Christopher Guest movies and slew of TV shows, but it seems that with ventriloquism looked down on in many circles she’s had more difficulty pushing through than she perhaps should have.
Dolly Mixtures is a great showcase for her talents, where she interacts with a variety of puppet characters, from those she’s known for, such as Monkey and Gran, to newer characters like Conti’s eight-year-old daughter and an ancient man who’s nearing death (which may not sound funny, but it actually is). The loose theme running through the show is the ages of man, hence why characters run from the very young to the very old – plus a monkey.
What helps ensure Conti’s act doesn’t feel like we’ve suddenly fallen back in time three decades is the fact she’s very smart and constantly plays with what she’s doing. She is far from the first ventriloquist to have puppets who acknowledge they are puppets, but she takes it much further than hackneyed ‘you’ve got your hand up my ass jokes’.
While she keeps it light, there are plenty of fun and clever postmodern touches, where she gently brings up ideas about the psychological implications of what she’s doing, such as what the fact that she’s essentially having a conversation with herself means, and whether her characters are just projections of herself. Likewise she plays with the fact the audience is watching her doing this and getting involved with something that doesn’t really exist.
However this is certainly not 65 minutes of heavy intellectualism, as Conti fits it in amongst plenty of silliness and humour, helped by a quick wit and a series of well thought out and funny puppet characters. She also brings out what has become one of her signature pieces, where she turns audience members into puppets with the help of a false mouth that she can operate. Here she gets a great set-up with a woman who’s come to the gig with her boyfriend and his twin brother. While I’ve seen her do this type of ventriloquism before and not been particularly impressed, here’s it’s very funny indeed.
What’s also nice about her act is that while she does swear and can sometimes be a little bit rude, her act feels like something that’s for a wide range of people, which is evidenced by the fact that her audience ranges from students to pensioners.
Overall Verdict: Dolly Mixtures is proof that the likes of impressionists, ventriloquists, traditional magic acts and various other variety acts from TV past don’t need to be consigned to the dustbin, as when done well – as Nina Conti does – they can still be a lot of fun.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac