Two things tend to spring to mind when I hear the word “ventriloquist”:
1) the ancient art of making one’s voice appear like it’s coming from somewhere other than where it is.
2) a prat wearing a bow tie systematically and creepily grinning at an audience while the lips move on the puppet up whose arse his hand is currently wedged.
I went to see a show in at the Arts Theatre entitled “The Two And Only” by Jay Johnson, which received a series of glowing reviews – all of which sounded like the sort of things a publicist might write rather than a critic. However I’m a reasonably open-minded type so I thought I’d give it a go.
I’m definitely glad I did – in spite of the relatively high cheese factor, what we have is an incredibly talented artist delivering a show which is part memoire, part lecture, and the rest is good old fashioned old fashioned entertainment. The historical context of ventriloquism is fascinating, and people who sought to understand or explain it dubbed it all manner of things, from demonic possession (the prophecies of Oracle of Delphi could have possibly been delivered by ventriloquists!) through to a mental illness. I internally cringed a little at the tale of the wide-eyed boy who made his way in showbiz, although the tale was quite emotionally charged. Johnson’s description of the highs and lows of his life, coupled with the excitement, respect and tenderness he feels for his puppet-making mentor and his hand-built puppet Squeaky really reached out to you, and you genuinely felt the sadness in the moment when Johnson got his big break in TV but the producers didn’t want him to work with Squeaky because Squeaky was too cute for the show – a ventriloquist makes their puppet a real character, and to see Jay explaining to Squeaky that he couldn’t work with him was so genuine you really forgot you were looking at painted wood.
Johnson’s talent as a ventriloquist is immense, and his sense of rapid comic timing and interplay with his characters draws you right in to the point where on the few occasions you do remember you’re looking at one performer on stage you think even moreso “How the hell DOES he do that!?”. As well as Squeaky, Jay had a vulture called Nevernore, a Monkey (whose catchphrase has its own website), a tennis ball, a fuzzy snake, and Bob – Squeaky’s TV replacement, who came out almost as malevolent as David Strassman‘s “Chuck Wood” character (complete with gag about having to get out straight after the show to score with some of the babes from Avenue Q). My favourite exchange between Bob & Jay was when Jay put tape over his mouth so his lips wouldn’t move, then tape over Bob’s mouth, then took Bob’s tape off and Bob was speaking with Jay’s voice, while Jay’s lips were still taped shut. Believeable, seamless, and brilliant!
Johnson continues his run into September at The Arts Theatre, and it’s worth a look at.