The funniest of animals | ZOO

One half of Malta’s most popular comedy troupe – Zoo – speak to us about the secret to their success and reveal why, this election around, the satirists won’t be touching politics with a barge pole…

The Zoo team will celebrate Christmas as Gianpula this year. From left: Owen Bonnici, Daniel Chircop, Chrysander Agius and Claire Agius Ordway.
The Zoo team will celebrate Christmas as Gianpula this year. From left: Owen Bonnici, Daniel Chircop, Chrysander Agius and Claire Agius Ordway.


As a marker of their self-made success, the Zoo quartet - made up of Chrysander Agius, Claire Agius Ordway, Daniel Chircop and Owen Bonnici - own and run their own performance space: Valletta's swaggeringly-monikered 'City Theatre' in Old Bakery Street.

Effectively, the TV and stage performers have made their passion into a sustainable full time job, and this is something to celebrate in a local scene that has yet to learn to treat cultural endeavours as little more than just a hobby, or idle pastime.

But upon entering the space on a mundane Friday morning, you'd be hard-pressed to find any signs of bustling, showy professionalism.

I'm buzzed into their offices only to find a darkened staircase... the space, which I know as a bustling ticket office, post-gig party dance-floor and even one edition of the always-packed Patches Artisan Market, is now inexplicably draped in darkness, and the seemingly disembodied voice of who I can only assume is the team's secretary is my only guide up the spiralling staircase.

When I'm finally guided past the office doors, it's to discover a quirky office space that feels both modern and homey: liberally sprinkled with corkboard stylings, the Zoo think-tank has a kitchen embedded in its working space, and when the friendly Chrysander pops out somewhere from this wonderfully anarchic set of rooms, he promptly offers me a drink before leading me to a "quiet" spot.

True to what seems to be - if first impressions are anything to go by - Zoo's rough-and-tumble work ethic, it looks as though this "quiet" office wasn't quiet for all that long, with empty wrappers and glasses littering the - once again - corkboard desk.

"Looks like someone had a party here," Chrysander says with a smile, and despite the fact that Zoo are very much in a position to employ full-timers, he takes to clearing up himself.

And for a few minutes into our interview, it looks as though Chrysander will be Zoo's spokesperson for the day. "Certainly looks like it, since Owen hasn't shown up yet!"

Starting from the beginning, I ask him about Zoo's beginnings.

"We all met through separate engagements, really, but the team as we know it now really started back in 2004, when we were producing a comedy show called Zinners. At the end of that we decided to stage a theatre performance to thank our sponsors and so on, and that's where Zoo was born, with the show 'Zoo Comes to Town'... we made around Lm30 each overall, but we considered it to be a success at the time: we certainly had fun, and the venue was packed!"

From then on the ball got rolling, and soon enough the team had swelled to include their first - and so far, only - female member, Claire Agius Ordway.

"It was around our third of fourth show that we said: 'listen, this could really be expanded into something bigger'..."

Soon enough, the team grew from being just a performing gang to a full-blown media company. Their sure-and-steady success begs the question: what was the secret ingredient that more or less instantly endeared them to the Maltese public (according to Chrysander, their fans stretch across "every strata of society")?

"I think we were the first in Malta to come up with comedy shows that had a genuine satirical edge and that dealt with things like politics... I mean, the closest you could get to that kind of stuff at the time was in pantos, so I think that definitely gave us an edge. Of course, the fact that we were recognisable faces on TV also helped," Chrysander says.

But it's clear that the team have an unwavering respect for live theatre, and are acutely aware of its benefits. "You definitely have more freedom with theatre, and we've had the luxury of growing up with our audience, as it were. It also teaches you how to adapt to different spaces."

Zoo's upcoming live appointment will in fact be something a bit different. They'll be charged with being the sprinkled-on entertainment for the 'Rewind 90s' Party at the Main Room of Gianpula on Christmas Eve.

"We were actually brainstorming about this just a few days ago! But since it's a party, we obviously can't present a full-on show, so we have to focus on the visual side of things. So for example, we'll be staging a blackout in the middle of the party, and having a half-blind character stumble out; Claire will also be running around with mistletoe, and whoever she comes close to will have to kiss their partner... that kind of thing," Chrysander says.

An apologetic Owen has since turned up, and when I ask what keeps the Zoo formula fresh, he replies with: "You just have to keep trying out different things. Once you get into a routine, you run the risk of stagnating..."

And while Zoo aren't shy to flirt with controversy - Chrysander's own misadventures with the now-sunken potty-mouthed puppet satire Teletubi is a testament to that - they're surprisingly wary of capitalising on the political scenario this time around.

"We're just not sure about it, to be honest... normally we'd jump at the chance to poke fun at the political scenario but it's a much uglier situation this time around... there's too much drama, too much tension," Owen says.

But surely, humour has the power to deflate tension, not exacerbate it, I suggest?

Chrysander offers up a wry smile.

"Half the live audience might be drunk - you can't really take that out of the equation."

Fair point.