In Your Face | Nina ContiNina Conti has been a popular fixture at the Melbourne Comedy Festival for the best part of a decade, even taking out the prestigious Barry Award in 2008 (she tied with Kristen Schaal). And while its her stand up comedy that has made her a household name, she perhaps unsurprisingly has a serious theatre pedigree. Born into a theatrical family (her father is Tom Conti), she studied philosophy and spent a few years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, before taking the obvious route into ventriloquism.

Conti introduces her new show by explaining that 95% of it is improvised. No two shows are the same, so feel free to come again – 'just in case tonight is shit'. There's no chance of that – Conti is phenomenal.

After briefly getting to know the audience she gently invites some of them on stage to become her human dummies, fitting them up with half masks which she both animates and voices. Within seconds they have quite literally become her mouthpiece, and speaking on their behalf she effortlessly transforms otherwise normal audience members into larger than life comedy.

The golden rule of improv is never say no, and its a principle Conti has clearly mastered. She cleverly and actively incorporates the reactions of her volunteers and celebrates the weirdness, knowing full well it is the unexpected that makes the show what it is. Like when on the night I attended, one of the volunteers explained he had assisted in the development of a medical device that helps people with constipation. In Conti's hands, the 'device' morphed into something quite different altogether, and became an hilarious, if somewhat disturbing, running gag for the rest of the night.

As the number of volunteers on stage grows from one to two to four, the action threatens to turn chaotic, but Conti, expertly managing the mayhem, maintains a clear through line for the rest of the audience. Just when you think she is in danger of losing control of proceedings, her lighting quick imaginative reflexes, underpinned by a generous sense of playfulness, restores a semblance of order to keep the show together.

This is not a slick show – at least not in the sense that the lines are carefully written and rehearsed beforehand. Its messy and playful, things don’t go as expected and words come out wrong. The audience is constantly surprised and surprising. But that's what makes it so much fun. To create an atmosphere where the audience feels so free to play, and to have the skill to wrangle the unpredictable into a coherent (let alone entertaining!) show, is no mean feat. An hour with this superb performer went by far too quickly.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival presents
In Your Face
Nina Conti

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio | 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Dates: 29 Mar – 10 Apr 2016
Tickets: $29 – $38.50

Most read Melbourne reviews

Master of the deadpan, harsh host of Hard Quiz, and heartless interrogator on Hard Chat, making...

It doesn’t matter how much you know or care about the legality of the Essendon Football Club...

If you’re looking for a show that’s completely different and unlike anything you’ve seen in...

For fans of the musical, the problems and changes to the book and plot of Chess are as familiar...

Swapping 16th Century Verona for 1930s Hollywood, and a lengthy title for the short and snappy...