'Dolly Mixtures' – Nina Conti
If talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, then Nina Conti provides a first class ticket to her own personal bedlam with her new show ‘Dolly Mixtures’, currently showing at the Soho Theatre. Conti brings more madcap characters to the stage than ever before, all of whom are in some way related or connected to her. This is a gutsy approach, as not only are you invited to believe her puppets are sentient but you must also buy into their back-stories.
Thankfully, Conti has the vent/puppeteer mix well in hand, so to speak but, if the thought of taking verbal abuse from a puppet doesn’t appeal, don’t even contemplate sitting in the front row. She begins with a brief appearance from ‘Monk’, her small brown Monkey puppet and main sidekick for the last decade. Monkey turns idle chitchat into a full-blown interrogation laced with comic notes, targeting those who deny him information. It’s a genuine treat to watch Monkey hold a woman’s gaze with his marble eyes, as he demands detailed information about her love life. All the while, Conti herself apologises profusely, keeping up the illusion as Monk protests at being stuffed away into a handbag.
Next, a pink bag reveals a child puppet with pigtails who helps her ‘mum’ warm up by exploring the psychological relationship between the ventriloquist and puppet, posing existential questions to the crowd. This academic delving may sound a bit heavy, but the contrast between Conti’s intelligent questioning and the puppet’s girlish look is just right.
Much of Conti’s act relies on characters seemingly behaving out of character. Conti’s Scottish granny, a puppet with psychic abilities and a soft, Aberdeen accent, manages to slip the odd jibe into conversation, claiming Conti's stylish animal-print heels are "the shoes of a whore". Another highlight is 'Killer' – a camp pit bull terrier, clad in pink. Killer is cartoon-esque but as he keeps scratching himself, you really believe in him and begin to wonder how flea-ridden the poor fellow must be.
Perhaps the most divisive character is Stefan, Conti’s Polish builder. A full-size puppet in a red boiler suit, Stefan is less convincing then the other puppets at first, owing to flimsy legs that bend in all directions and his large, oddly proportioned yellow head. However, it’s not long before Conti requests the help of an audience member, who gladly steps into Stefan’s legs from behind and puts his arms through the puppet’s sleeves, allowing him to operate the body while Conti retains charge of the head and keeps the puppet talking.
When the man is asked to perform a series of press-ups on top of Conti, giving the impression of a very rude scene indeed, Stefan fulfils his potential (for want of a better expression), and Conti's weak protestations that she is married, coupled with her apparent enjoyment of the experience, only add to the humour. The show peaks when Conti invites two strangers onstage to wear masks with moving mouths which she controls, for a light-hearted romantic scene showcasing her ad lib skills. ‘Dolly Mixtures’ lives up to its name as a sweet assortment of traditional ventriloquism, sharp dialogue and sarcastic, yet loveable puppets.