Nina Conti

Nina Conti

Date of birth: 25-08-1973

The daughter of actors Tom Conti and Kara Wilson, Nina Conti initially followed in their footsteps and became part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. However she found it was not for her, and with the encouragement of her mentor Ken Campbell took up ventriloquism on the London comedy circuit, with her puppet sidekick, Monkey.

In 2002, she won the BBC New Comedy Award – though it took her five more years to make her debut with her first solo full-length show, Complete and Utter Conti. The following years she won the Barry Award for this show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, tying with Kristen Schaal.

Acting roles include Black Books, Holby City,  Christopher Guest's 2006 film, For Your Consideration and 2013 mockumentary series  Family Tree.

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Nina Conti: The Dating Show

Review of the comedy impressionist's ambitious new tour

The overriding reaction to Nina Conti’s Dating Show is: how the hell does she do that?

Combining the two most maligned skills in comedy – ventriloquism and improv – she recruits multiple volunteers and conjures up personalities and voices for them all, inventing hilarious sketches based on the smallest of visual clues. There are a lot of plates to keep spinning, yet the result is natural, coherent and damn impressive. Above all that, it’s uproariously funny. No overthinking needed on the audience’s behalf.

The Dating Show makes heavy use of the masks that Conti’s been deploying long before face coverings were fashionable. They clip over her volunteers’ jaws, allowing her to control their lips like any ventriloquist’s doll and put words – and almost always a silly accent – into their mouths.

At first, it’s straightforward, relatively. She masks up a couple of audience patsies and asks them about their dating lives and what they might be looking for in a partner, as musician Dan Attfield adds some ambience, also ad-libbed.

In Richmond last night, the poor art gallery volunteer was made to look a little desperate while Romany was given a horsey, hockey-sticks, gets-things-done attitude… and a crush on her yoga teacher. How very Surrey! But all is taken in good spirits. ‘I work with the willing’ is Conti’s motto. ‘But avoid the over-keen,’ its wise qualifier.

As always, Monkey is Conti’s companion between the set pieces, the evil side of the comic’s encouraging stage persona voicing inappropriate sentiments she never dare.

After the interval, a giant version of the simian sidekick speed-dates willing fans who form a queue to be mocked. This segment is a little hit-and-miss, the summary dismissal of anyone who doesn’t come up to scratch usually the gag - as it is with Graham Norton’s red chair.

More importantly, though, it’s a screening process for the climactic set-piece, last night involving a ‘barely legal’ 16-year-old lad being paired with a master’s drama student, as his parents (mum being made an aggressive American, for no reason) look on. Conti’s great at seizing upon the slightest detail and making a running joke out of it, which really makes this scene sizzle.

Combined with the demands of juggling all the voices, the technical requirements of the masks and the ventriloquism create an exhilarating sense of impending chaos. The feeling that everything’s on the precipice of collapse drives the laugh-out-loud slapstick, but beneath it all, Conti’s got it covered and keeps the scene on track.

After a massive farcical high, the postscript is a small comedown – a reprisal of one of her longstanding skits adopting Monkey’s voice from her own mouth and vice-versa. But it’s a brief postscript to the bedlam that the audience emerge from the theatre talking about, excited, entertained, amused and very, very impressed.

Nina Conti is on tour with The Dating Show until February. Nina Conti tour dates

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Published: 15 Nov 2021

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