MICF – Nina Conti Your Face or Mine?

by | Apr 15, 2024

By Jessica Taurins

Nina Conti is a ventriloquist, stage performer, comedian, and more recently, actor / director in her upcoming film ‘Sunlight’, where she is also a monkey. She can, most impressively, do it all, and pulls a lot of it off under not-so-easy conditions during her 2024 Melbourne International Comedy Show ‘Your Face or Mine?’.

Conti hasn’t visited MICF since the Before Times (pre-Covid) and her genuine brand of ventriloquism-slash-audience work has definitely been missed. For many years Conti’s shtick has been her Monkey, a puppet through which she can voice anything and everything, up to and including viciously swearing at the audience.

Conti herself is soft and relatively sweet, thoroughly apologetic when she accidentally calls upon a 17-year-old to come onstage, who unfortunately had to be turned away due to an insurance age limit.

On the other hand, when an audience member cries that it’s his birthday, Monkey tells him to fuck off. “Everyone has a birthday,” the puppet says, to riotous laughter. Of course, the puppet is Conti and Conti is the puppet (which is the subject of a late-show deep dive into Conti’s psyche) but Conti’s ability to fade into the background while Monkey speaks is a real skill, and one she’s honed over many, many years.

‘Your Face or Mine?’ is a flipbook of audience work and Monkey segments. First, Monkey and Conti search the audience for someone with a funny job or a small family group. Once they find someone with an entertaining enough trait, Conti can move on to Phase Two: putting them in a mask she controls and making them talk with her own voice.

You see, a ventriloquist can voice anything. Even someone already with a voice of their own.

Conti is charming as she chats with the audience to find the right person to pull onstage, but as with all audience-based improv, sometimes it can be difficult. The masks don’t do all the work; while she can voice them, she needs to read a volunteer’s body language quickly to ensure the dialogue is matching their demeanour… which can be unenviably difficult when people are a little too reserved to be watched by a few hundred people.

To her credit, even with quiet people who don’t move around too much, Conti can still pull out a story. She brings up a brother and sister, then determines one is Italian and one is not, immediately setting the crowd into hysterics. Through the interview with them both – where, as a reminder, Conti plays herself AND the siblings – she learns from them that they played with trains as children and then, accompanied by comedian Dan Lees on guitar, she improvises a song about trains. As both of the siblings. All at once.

Conti is an absolute powerhouse of comedy, even when working with complete strangers. She has a segment called ‘Speed Therapy’, where audience members approach the stage to work out their problems with Monkey. No matter what they say, Conti has a comeback and some advice (not always sound, but advice nonetheless) and manages to entertain everyone along the way.

With all her wealth of experience, it’s not hard to see why Conti is BAFTA-award winning as a performer. ‘Your Face or Mine?’ is a great example of her wide skill working with others as well as within her own mind with Monkey, and Conti is a real joy to see every year she pops down to MICF.

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