Amidst coloured lights and a booming voiceover, Nina Conti walks onto the stage with a giant smile and her trademark dark locks moving around her. She’s wearing a figure hugging black dress, shiny red heels, and is nonchalantly carrying over her shoulders a collection of large overnight bags. It is a rather dazzling entrance.
‘Ventriloquism.’ The word itself is difficult enough to pronounce, the act itself is nothing short of astonishing. But it is not for this reason, nor for Nina’s entrance, that everyone must see Talk To The Hand. Rather, it is because Nina proves that as an art form, ventriloquism can be not only extremely funny, but naughty, sexy, topical, and perhaps above all, intelligent.
Nina’s characterisation of the various creatures that she plucks from each of her bags is wonderful; the human characters are incredibly lifelike and all are believable as they interact, seemingly of their own accord, with Nina and the audience. There’s Monkey who is crude and has a penchant for swearing; Owl, who fancies himself as a poet and is full of self-importance; Granny, a lovely old dear; and Lydia, a middle-aged woman with a voice like a hacksaw and maybe a facelift or two.
Despite this, the audience are of course well aware that these characters are not real. They are just physical extensions and mental projections of the human behind them and in this instance, without Nina, they have no voice, no movement, no life. It is this phenomenon that makes ventriloquism so intriguing, and rather cleverly it is precisely this that Nina plays on, challenges, and explores.
At the very beginning there comes the sound of a rather gravelly voice. It’s that of Monkey, but his familiar, furry little brown body is nowhere to be seen. Instead there is just Nina’s right hand, forming a sort of beak, chatting away. Indeed this stripping back shows the audience what they already know, that with the removal of the character’s façade there is only Nina’s hand, her voice, and her imagination. But Nina’s unabashed admittance of this, and her character’s verbal reminders throughout the show, is an indication of the respect she has for both her audience’s intelligence and for what is at the heart of her craft.
A great deal of this show is dependent on audience involvement and on this particular evening the audience are also in fine form. It calls for Nina to employ some quick ad lib, which is made all the more difficult because she is essentially thinking on the spot of two responses (her own, and that of the character attached to her arm), not to mention the potential for a mix up as she verbally articulates their individual responses in differing accents, one with moving lips and the other without. It is an extreme test when she and Monkey play a game of word association with their audience, but the result, as always in this show, is an incredible display of quick wittedness, impeccable timing, and flawless execution.
From her final bag, Nina retrieves two half-face masks that she then puts on the faces of two audience members. Through the movement of a thin rod she is able to manually manipulate the mouth of these masks so that the audience members become human puppets. Whilst it’s amusing to watch Nina give voice to her toy puppets and dummies, a similar action for fellow humans is even more hysterical.
Nina has more than a few tricks up her sleeve. She can literally talk through water (or Vodka if we are to believe the bottle it comes from and the effect it has on Lydia after she drinks it), and she can swap voices with her characters. The second task seems relatively easy until one realises that it involves Nina projecting her own voice as it would sound in regular conversation, without moving her lips.
When the character of Granny first came onto stage she made mention of her wish to sing a duet with Nina. Nina advises that she doesn’t sing, and the suggestion is promptly forgotten. But then, right at the end, Granny comes back on to the stage and begins to sing. Nina then begins to sing along with her, and then the audience also joins in. It’s a lovely and fitting way to end the show. But more than that, it seems that what is perhaps Nina’s best trick has been saved until last, for it was only upon leaving the theatre, that it dawned on this audience member that such a duet should surely be physically impossible. But then, if anyone can make the impossible seem possible, it’s Nina Conti.
2011 Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Talk To The Hand
Venue: RMIT Capitol Theatre | 113 Swanston St (opp Town Hall), Melbourne
Dates: 13 – 17 April, 2011
Times: Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm
Duration: 55 minutes
Tickets: $35 – $25.50 (N/A Sat)
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 660 013