Colin Hoult’s been tinkering with this for a while, presenting bits and pieces in various different forms over the past few years. Declaring that the time is finally right, he’s offering his Real Horror Show as the finished article, an evening of loosely linked theatrical horrors with a jugular vein of Hoult’s character comedy running through them. It still doesn’t feel finished, truthfully, but there’s an infectious love for the genre running through it, and even a few surprising moments of genuine fear.
That ‘Real’ in the title turns out to be all important, because although there are nods aplenty to the history of horror cinema, Hoult’s shock-show plays out against a backdrop of class division and benefit cuts. The villain of the piece is a Murdoch-like media baron, who’s tendrils seem to creep into each of the short vignettes. It’s not political horror exactly, but Hoult is clearly interested in the grim consequences of real life inequality and inhumanity.
The stories take in a Hostel-style torture lounge, where criminals are mutilated by the paying public, a job interview that takes an extremely dark turn (literally) and an encounter between a comic book fan and a job restart officer. One of them, a tense confrontation in an abortion clinic waiting room, is barely horror at all, yet Hoult manages to create an atmosphere of menace and unknown threat that ties it into the evening’s weird tone.
It is properly weird, and not always in the way you’d imagine. It’s ostensibly set on Christmas eve, and there’s a sickly, chocolate wrapper glaze over everything. It’s difficult to put into words, but the tone is somewhere between the darker moments of The League of Gentlemen and the lighter moments of Chris Morris’ Jam. It’s not exactly surreal, just slightly demented and unpredictable. The shakiness of the presentation adds this feeling of unease; combined with Hoult’s unpredictable energy it means that the terms of engagement are never made entirely clear. When the auditorium is plunged into total darkness it’s genuinely unnerving, you’re aware that anything could happen to you, and that it may not be particularly safe when it does.
Compared to the frenetic Characthorse, Hoult’s performance here is almost restrained, and he’s assembled a solid cast to flesh out his creepy tales. There’s a particularly chilling turn from Exeunt’s own Matthew Floyd Jones, who manages to make a roll of Sellotape quite unsettling. It feels loosely rehearsed, which occasionally leads to severe problems with pacing, but also fosters a playful atmosphere – it’s clear Hoult is relishing letting his hair down and trying something a little spiky.
Real Horror Show is pretty scrappy for something commanding a full-price ticket, with a mid-run performance that feels distinctly like a preview, but there are enough strong ideas and outbursts of ghoulish mayhem to keep the cauldron bubbling. The fragments of political engagement scattered throughout it are suggestive of something more, though, and it can only be hoped that Hoult will continue beavering away on this flawed but intriguing horror show.