Monkeying around for love and laughs with Nina Conti and masks in The Dating Show

Masks of the non-Covid kind will be worn in the theatre when Nina Conti hosts The Dating Show at the Grand Opera House, York, next month

NO sooner has removing masks become the norm than Nina Conti wants you to put them back on, all in the cause of her pioneering new dating game.

After a four-year hiatus since her In Your Face travels, the London ventriloquist-comedian will be embarking on The Dating Show tour on October 31, visiting the Grand Opera House, York, on November 12 with 14 robust masks made by a fellow ventriloquist in the Philippines.

“She’ll be like Cilla Black with masks. Derailed. Not so much a Blind Date as a re-voiced one,” promises the show spiel.

“Before this Armageddon hit, I was developing a dating show where I would connive for audience members to fall in love wearing masks,” says Nina. “Post-Covid, I can’t think of anything more fitting. I think we all need to get in a room together and laugh our heads off, and if the subject can be love, so much the better.”

There you have it: a comedy show for 2021 with elaborate latex masks, Nina’s cheeky monkey sidekick Monkey, a return to human connection and the possibility of romance in the air.

As it happens, the matchmaking format of The Dating Show has emerged through happenstance from In Your Face’s earlier use of masks. “When I did masks before with an audience, I often ended up with love matches,” Nina recalls.

“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!?’

Ventriloquist-comedian Nina Conti and masks for The Dating Show. Picture: Matt Crockett

“But then I thought that maybe it’s not me forcing it because it’s simply happening every time, so why resist? And why not do something called The Dating Show?”

After Nina experimented with the new show in trial runs pre-pandemic at London’s Soho Theatre, lockdown has allowed her to settle on the best way forward. “To avoid it becoming this hetero-normative thing, you want to get everyone involved,” she has decided.

“In the Soho shows, I opened with Monkey interviewing a bunch of people in the audience, and whoever elicited the most warmth was the person I went with. I’m not after eccentrics, just likeability. Hopefully those we get up could be any kind of person and not just the Cilla Black demographic.”

What happens next? “I just get a feel for it from the banter, to put two people together up there on stage, put masks on them, then have a low-key chat about their past relationships and what they’re looking for next.

“Let’s see who bonds and where it goes. It might even be two straight men trying to work it out.  As long as it’s funny, great. I just want it to be funny.”

CharlesHutchPress spoke to Nina on September 27, two weeks ahead of her starting her test run for the autumn tour. “All my shows are unscripted, so really what I’m searching for is to put the scaffolding and structure in place.

“What I’ll definitely do is return to the audience with Monkey after each stage encounter and one person might stay on stage for the next encounter,” she says.

The poster for Nina Conti’s 2021 tour, The Dating Show

“It’s just a comedy show! It’s kind of nonsense, getting people on stage and asking them to ‘sing a musical number to each other’, or they might ‘go skiing’ or ‘go up in a hot air balloon’! Each vignette will be something crazy.

“They won’t have a grand script or anything. I put masks on them, covering them from below their eyes to their jaw line, then I speak for them, turning them into puppets, where I respond to their body language in the moment.”

Nina, 47, loves interacting with audience members on stage. “I find people very loveable when they’re up there. It’s a mixture of celebration and their own bafflement. They feel safe because I don’t ask awkward questions and it’s liberating for them with the mask on because they don’t feel like themselves,” she says.

“Maybe someone’s shyness is the real self but sometimes the mask frees them up. Most people wear a mask of some kind anyway: I know I do, being different in different contexts, but Monkey is great for me because he says things where I don’t need to antagonise!”

There’s the rub! Monkey is free to be the quick-thinking agent provocateur in the partnership between ventriloquist and dummy: the one with the smart mouth. “Yes, absolutely! The dummy is the ‘bright one’ in the ventriloquist act!” says Nina, who was approached originally by her old mentor, Ken Campbell, to try out the ventriloquist’s art, one that pretty much had been consigned to the suitcase in comedy’s attic.

“I’m lucky to have found it, because I never thought that ventriloquism was a skill worth having,” she admits. “I would never have gone to a ventriloquism show, and when it was suggested to me by Ken I was so uninterested in it. I thought he was mad!

“I don’t know if I’ve enhanced it for nostalgia, but there was a definite lightbulb moment. I had 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, but I didn’t know if his mouth could operate. He was more like Sooty; your hand isn’t meant to go in his head.

“The dummy is the ‘bright one’ in the ventriloquist act!” says Nina Conti. Picture: Matt Crockett

“But like all things that end up fitting and going well, most creativity doesn’t work like you expect Once I had taken the squeak and some stuffing out, I found that his mouth could work!

“I’d done a bit of ventriloquism already, but thought it was bit spooky, but when I put my hand into his face, as soon as he started to talk, I thought, ‘Woah! Everything you’re saying is coming from a wider place than my own head’.

“He has such gravitas.” Monkey, gravitas, Nina? Really?! “He wouldn’t agree! He’d say, ‘Get over it, you’re delusional’, but then he’d say, ‘Who’s to say who’s being delusional here?’. I say things that surprise me through him, and I try to keep myself out of it when I’m speaking as him, thinking, ‘I’ll have to get out of this situation later, but for now we’ll just let Monkey say what he says’.”

Where does Nina keep Monkey when not performing? “He’s sort of kept about the house. I travel lightly with him in my handbag, and I just toss him to one side when I need to put something in there. Like something you’re familiar with, you stop treating him with reverence, but I would never do that on stage,” she says.

In fact, Nina has more than one Monkey. “It’s like The Matrix, growing those embryos! I’ve got loads, and I tend to use them for a period of time. Maybe six Monkeys in 20 years. Each new one, I have to scrub his face because I need him to look a bit worn. I’ve just started a new Monkey in the last few months, using hair putty to dampen him to age him!” she reveals.

For the record, Nina is not seeking to be the new Cilla with The Dating Show . “I’m not really match-making,” she says. “Anything that then happens off-stage afterwards is beyond my control!”

Nina Conti, The Dating Show, Grand Opera House, York, November 12, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york

“We all need to get in a room together and laugh our heads off, and if the subject can be love, so much the better,” says Nina. Picture: Idil Sukan

Voila! Here is La Voix, drag artiste, singer, impressionist et saucy gag teller, en route to Grand Opera House pour Novembre 13

La Voix:

FEISTY, flame-haired Royal Family favourite La Voix is on tour, taking on the big divas and making them her own in The UK’s Funniest Redhead show in York on November 13.

Billed as her “most glamorous show yet”, the 2014 Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist will be combining stellar songs and saucy gags, high energy and diva impersonations, glamour and gowns – eight of them – in her Grand Opera House debut.

Expect her to switch between the vocal trademarks of Tina Turner, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland and Cher at the click of a finger.

La Voix, the drag artiste creation of Chris Dennis, played Leeds City Varieties Music Hall two nights ago. She hosts a talk show on BBC Radio Three Counties, appeared in Absolutely Fabulous The Movie, has twice entertained Prince William and Prince Harry at New Year’s Eve parties and has worked with Mickey Rooney, Cilla Black, Pamela Anderson, Brigitte Nielsen and Ruby Wax.

When she topped the bill at Sir Ian McKellan’s 80th birthday bash, she was commended lavishly by the venerable actor, who said: “La Voix’s impersonations are surpassed only by her own cheekily entertaining personality.”

Tickets for La Voix and her band’s 7.30pm show are on sale at atgtickets.com/york.

Sheridan Smith to play Cilla a lorra, lorra more times on tour that visits Leeds Grand

The poster for Sheridan Smith’s return to playing Cilla Black, this time on tour in Cilla The Musical

SHERIDAN Smith will revisit her portrayal of Cilla Black in Cilla The Musical at Leeds Grand Theatre from November 9 to 21.

She first played the late Liverpool pop star and television presenter in Jeff Pope’s award-winning ITV mini-series Cilla in 2015.

The part was written for Smith originally for a stage show but was then transferred to television, whereupon her performance won her a 2015 National TV Award and TV Choice Award and she was nominated for a BAFTA and EMMY Award too.

Now, expecting a baby in May, 38-year-old Smith has agreed to step inside the role of Cilla once more in impresario Bill Kenwright’s stage production, penned again by Pope.

Sheridan Smith in the role of Cilla Black for ITV’s 2015 mini-series Cilla

Her past theatre credits include her first Olivier Award nomination for Little Shop Of Horrors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, and her first Olivier Award and WhatsOnStage Award for playing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde The Musical.

Smith, from Epworth, near Doncaster, then won an Olivier Award and an Evening Standard Theatre Award for her role as Doris in Flare Path. Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at The Old Vic brought her another WhatsOnStage Best Actress Award and she enjoyed a celebrated run in the West End as Fanny Bryce in Funny Girl in 2018.

Cilla The Musical’s heart-warming musical adaptation of Pope’s television series first toured in 2017, when nominated for Best New Musical in the WhatsOnStage Awards.

Kara Lily Hayworth played Cilla after ten rounds of auditions and a final four sing-off at The Cavern in Liverpool for the tour that visited the Grand Opera House, York, in January 2018.

Kara Lily Hayworth played Cilla in the tour of Cilla The Musical that visited the Grand Opera House, York, in January 2018

Directed by Kenwright and Bob Tomson, Pope’s story “follows the extraordinary life of an ordinary teenage girl from Liverpool, Priscilla White, and her rocky, yet incredible, rise to fame”.

By the age of 25, she was recognised as international singing star Cilla Black. By 30, she had become Britain’s favourite television entertainer, leading to such series as  Blind Date and Surprise Surprise.

The musical score features such Cilla landmarks as Anyone Who Had A Heart, Alfie and Something Tells Me.

Tickets are on sale on 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com.

Did you know?

JEFF Pope wrote the screenplays for Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman; Essex Boys; Philomenaand Stan & Ollie. His television work includes the BAFTA-winning ITV drama Mrs Biggs and Cilla, both starring Sheridan Smith.