As a longtime fan of Nina Conti, the 15th best ventriloquist in the world (according to her), it's hard for her to surprise me any more. I remember her puppets, and their characters and personalities, and I almost always know what to expect when she brings them out of her bag. 'In Your Face' brings her repertoire of established characters down a notch: the only puppet with her is her naughty Monkey, decades old and filled with total and complete cynicism. The rest of the show is populated by audience members in comical masks, which are manipulated by Conti as she brings voices to people she's never met before in an attempt to produce a show. And produce she does.
To start, Monkey. While Conti is a lovely lady, very kind and interested in what audience members have to say, Monkey is the absolute personification of everything that isn't Conti. He's rude, abrasive, and unpleasant to everyone, but the magic of the show is that nobody cares. He can swear at Conti or he can berate latecomers to the show, but everyone is always laughing because he's just a puppet, and though his words come from Conti, they're not connected to her, so nobody is offended.
Our audience members of the night were many and varied. Monkey told the first gentleman, an IT guy, that he was too boring and immediately moved on to his wife, a homewares buyer, which confused him enough for a little banter to commence. But, by the end of the night, Conti had been smacked in the face with a giant inflatable banana by the buyer, and convinced the IT guy that he had killed his previous wife with the same banana.
There were others, of course: a television producer whose mask made some inappropriate jokes about donkeys and her friend the children's doctor (whose job was far too sacred to mock, as admitted by both Conti and Monkey – it turns out the little fuzzball does have a heart!). But it didn't matter who they went up as, Conti masterfully crafted personalities for each mask and associated person, and everyone played along, almost anticipating her suggestions before she made them.
Though occasionally the interplay between Conti and her (un)willing victims was strained, she was always there with her quick wit and variety of voices to encourage them to play along. The poor girl Fionaeoulla (Phenoullah? Fenoula?) was the butt of a million jokes due to her less-than-conventional name, but Conti's gentle poking brought her out of her shell alongside her accordion-wielding friend, also named Fionaeoulla (but only when Conti was talking).
Conti has an amazing power with her craft to deflect attention away from herself – which is the goal of a ventriloquist, I suppose – and onto her characters, which are all brilliant, be they stuffed or human. Her final act, a human puppet of a different kind, left the audience in tears. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.