Christien Anholt has had a long-running and varied career that has seen him star in a big-budget Indiana Jones-style Canadian TV series, a Dickens, a raft of popular television shows and major West end theatre but he’s never played a donkey, not even Shakespeare’s Bottom..until now.
And he’s probably not appeared on stage with three other donkeys, all making an ass of themselves as they fight and bicker about power and its abuse.
But, do you know what? He makes rather a noble beast who reveals that donkeys aren’t as stupid as their reputation. Montagu is astute but never asinine.
Montagu, Greg Freeman’s allegorical play, opened at London’s Tabard Theatre last night, and it owes a lot to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
While the four-hander sees its characters – four donkeys called Montagu, Old Smokey, Cupcake and Shadow – squabble about herd politics – it’s obvious that this clever satire is about so much more.
That it premieres just a few weeks after Donald Trump becomes top dog is surely no coincidence. But there are any number of world leaders who could be pencilled in for Montagu’s part.
Freeman certainly knows his donkeys, a herd animal that is stubborn, selfish, have a highly developed sense of self preservation and which also elects the strongest to be its leader.
What lets Montagu down is that he doesn’t push the dialogue, comedy or plot far enough and the thin story struggles to fill the 80 minutes the production currently runs for.
But Anholt, Jerome Ngonadi, Evelyn Craven and Georgia Robson, excel as the beasts of burden, coming on stage to don their make-up and fetching ears, legwarmer hooves and button-on tails.
A second later and their characters kick in. Montagu (Anholt) is an outsider. He wants to be left alone and have nothing to do with the herd. He just wants to spend his days walking in circles around his favourite tree.
But someone is killing off the herd’s leaders and everyone is getting skittish. Ngonadi, who makes an initial, brief, appearance as (understandably) paranoid herd leader, Butch, appeals for help from the nervous Montagu.
“These are uncertain times. There is an assassin in our midst. There is a donkey with a lust for power!” He declares.
Poor Butch doesn’t last a night and the whole election process must kick off again, with, thanks to a bit of vote-rigging, Montagu the unlikely victor – which comes as a profound shock to the unwitting candidate who didn’t even know that an election had been called.
“But I didn’t vote!” he whines. The cowardly, introspective, apathetic, dithering Montagu finds himself thrust into the limelight and very soon the power goes to his head.
How long will it be before the power-brokers move to oust their latest puppet leader? And whose vision is right for the future of the herd?
Craven is scary as the power-hungry, unhinged but foolhardy Cupcake, who plots and schemes with her intimidating sidekick, Shadow always in her..well.. shadow. Ngonadi’s main role as the streetwise, crazy, and ambitious Smokey is hysterical. He’s one mashed up donkey.
But it is Anholt’s nuanced turn as the herd’s arty, reluctant, timorous maverick, Montagu, which wins by default.
Thought-provoking and timely but not as sharp as it could be.
Montagu runs at the Tabard Theatre until June 17.
Astute but never asinine, Greg Freeman’s allegorical play, Montagu, has kick-ass turns from its cast of four but is under-written.