Audience members for Characthorse are greeted personally by an excited Colin Hoult as they enter the space. When I see the show he intermittently sings along with his warm-up music (Scott Walker’s ‘Jackie’) while instructing the gathering crowd to sit in the front row. Traditional group reticence remained strong enough for some of them to disobey, but the audience really had nothing to fear. Seats that might constitute a firing line for other comedians are, in this case, more like the fingertips of an extended hand.
Hoult invites the audience into an energetic reimagining of a childhood where the father metamorphoses into Ringo Starr and Nottingham becomes Snottingham. It’s no surprise that in person he is as warm in person as he comes across on stage. Over coffee, he tells me that Characthorse is ‘about being lost and alone and trying to find acceptance and love, trying to bring a community together. The audience are the people of Snottingham.’
While Characthorse is a comedy show with a cast; his other Fringe offering, entitled Real Horror Show, is an explicitly theatrical affair which walks a line between sheer macabre entertainment and socio-political commentary. Although Hoult prefaces this remark with a laudable unwillingness to ‘bash people over the head’ with a message, he tells me that he recently realised Real Horror Show was both ‘an attack on capitalism’ and a nightmarish depiction of a futuristic Britain.’
Hoult is also acting in another show, Wardens, while he’s up in Edinburgh. When I ask him about the pressure of spreading himself so thinly during the month, he replies that it’s the practicalities of organising props—‘the stuff around’ the shows—that is the hardest thing. He also says he’s trying to learn to ‘box’ the shows up (‘that show doesn’t exist for this hour’); when Kat Hoult, his director and significant other, mentions Characthorse during a conversation about Real Horror Show, he has to cut her off. One is reminded of the chorus of that Scott Walker song: ‘If I could be for only an hour, if I could be for an hour every day’…
Nevertheless Hoult seems to be coping well enough with the stress of Edinburgh in August: he disagrees with my description of the Fringe as a hugely oppressive place for performers, and says it’s just daunting, that’s all. His first show here was in 2004, so by now he’s something of a veteran. In fact he is refreshingly un-curmudgeonly about the Fringe, and still seems genuinely excited to be here. He shows none of the adversarial attitude towards the city that one gets from some performers that come up north to make a name for themselves down south. Both of his shows have Scottish characters, and he expresses a certain personal alignment with the geeky, comic book-loving side of the culture here. He also describes his sympathy for Scotland as a country that has been ‘badly fucked over until the 90s basically’; when I respond that the Scottish have also contributed to fucking themselves over, he identifies ‘a kind of naturally self-defeating aspect to Scotland which is quite funny and quite sad.’ Nearly 100 years ago a critic labelled this tendency the Caledonian Antiszygy: although there’s much to question about the original concept, it does seem to ring true to the tragicomic aspect to our national identity that Hoult observes.
It’s also to his credit that his optimism doesn’t over-reach into naivety, or bland indifference to the cultural-political status quo. We talk about the aesthetic of cruelty in popular comedy; he points out, I think correctly, that the comedian has changed in the past ten years from being someone who is laughed at to someone who looks down on his audience. While unwilling to condemn any individual comedians behind this change, he expresses his personal dislike of it: he would prefer the comedian to be a victim of bullying rather than the bully. It seems telling that, while acknowledging ‘genius comedians’ like Kitson et al, he says that Greg Davies is his personal favourite.
Together we pursue a tangent about how this change in comic aesthetics might be due to our current hyper-Thatcherite climate, and the resulting tendency to blame the poorest elements of society for our economic problems. One moment of Horror Show sees four welfareclaimants turn on each other after being locked in a pitch-black benefits office overnight; at another point a media tycoon’s house is invaded by wraith-like children who tear his guts out and throws them towards the audience. To my mind, these children might represent a silver lining, for cultural as much as political change. Hoult tells me that he is impressed and inspired by a new generation of comedians—John Kearns, Stuart Laws, Mark Stephenson, Anish Kumar, Tom Newman and their ilk: ‘they’ve almost formed their little community and gone ‘fuck you’ to everything else. They really support each other…most of them haven’t got agents, they aren’t signed up to the big companies, and I hope they don’t.’
Later in the interview he furnishes me with an example of their optimism: know exactly what’s going to happen, and in life you don’t get that at any point, but in those ten minutes I know exactly what I have to say, and what I have to do, and exactly what’s going to happen.’ I thought that was so sweet and such a lovely way of seeing it, so I’m trying to think about my show that way.’
That Hoult referred to the singular ‘my show’ was a slip of the tongue, but a revealing one nonetheless. Although both Characthorse and Real Horror Show are self-sufficient hours, there is a strong symbiosis between them (it’s certainly interesting that his first show, Carnival of Monsters--‘a kind of Victoriana, monsters mixed with people from Nottingham’—effectively bridged a gap that he now seeks to widen). That said, he stresses the essential difference between them as that between comedy and theatre, respectively.
Does he have a divided loyalty? He tells me that he consciously decided to step away from macabre side of comedy because he felt that it is territory that has already been covered.
‘What I wanted to do with the comedy this year was really let people in and befriend them. Be very light. It’s obviously got darker bits, emotional bits, personal bits, sadder bits, but it is essentially just a fun hour of craziness and silliness. I hope it’s about as accessible as I’ll ever get, at least in my own stuff. So with the Horror Show I was able to go out-and-out: as dark and horrible as I wanted, because its theatre and I think in theatre you can be more shocking and it’s accepted. In comedy if you’re shocking then you’re one of those comedians who do ‘dark stuff’. I find the word quite lazy.’
Exeunt’s review of Real Horror Show pitched it as ‘somewhere between the darker moments of The League of Gentlemen and the lighter moments of Chris Morris’ Jam’; both of these shows, like Hoult’s, are tightly scripted in the way that theatre often is, but still fall within the generic bracket of comedy. When I propose that Horror Show could be thought of as a kind of sketch-theatre, he says he prefers to think of it as a series of vignettes. Yet the legacy of ‘horror-comedy’ seems to haunt both the show itself and what Hoult wishes to achieve with it: ‘it’s hard to progress with stuff that is like League of Gentlemen, and it’s been almost impossible to get anything like that on the telly or wherever, not that television’s been my goal’.
There may be a good reason why he thinks of Horror Show as theatrical; comedy, in its most basic sense, has the raison dêtre of making an audience laugh, whereas theatre does not demand such a specific reaction. I asked Colin whether he found the necessity of laughter to be problematic for a good comedy show. He replied that ‘seeking laughter can be a problem, but you also get addicted to it. When you start doing theatre [after comedy], it’s so hard not to play it for laughs.’ The cast of Horror Show is almost entirely made up of comedians, save one actress, so he says that collectively they find it hard to fight the urge to improvise ex tempore. In contrast, the only substantially improvised sections of Characthorse come from the moments of audience interaction that are off-limits to a theatrical show where, as he points out, ‘you can’t acknowledge a mistake.’
However, despite the inherent pitfalls in doing so, many comedians successfully make the leap into acting. What is it about comedy that enables the transition?
‘I think that comedians can be good at that because they’ve played around so much. Stand-up naturally ‘plays’: even if it’s just yourself with a mic then you can easily end up ‘playing’ ten characters. With actors it’s often the case that they’re about finding emotion and connection to that and expressing something that’s powerfully emotive and you watch it and go ‘Wow’, or weep because a person gives out this thing—as opposed to a character actor, which is naturally more comedic.I worked with some great actors recently and it’s amazing, when they turn it on it’s like something angelic or magical has happened. An actor can play a God and summon that self-confidence and power which a comedian can’t have, because comedians are terrified people…
…So in my comedy I’m trying to take those emotional moments and not throw them away. I have a tendency to apologise. It’s just a natural thing. As a comedian you can get a lot of laughs out of it. For instance, last night I suddenly became aware that there’s three endings to Characthorse, and made a crack about a show with endless endings. It got a laugh, but actually I didn’t need to say it. It’s hard to remind yourself of that. An actor would never apologise for something they’d done.’
It would simply be ‘the art’ for a theatre actor, I suggest. ‘Yeah, and you fucking will watch it. And that’s an amazing thing. And some comedians are like that too.’ In retrospect, it feels like one aspect of this turn towards community among performers will be an increased widening of disciplines. Hoult says that his original temptation was to do another character show. This would have been safe territory for him. Instead he decided to step out of his comfort zone and write his first solo comedy show. The personal aspects of this decision—which, I would speculate, is bound up with the aspiration of artistic improvement, and the need felt among thoughtful performers to carve out one’s own space—mirrors the personal nature of the subject material. Colin tells me it was an attempt to connect with a childhood version of himself: and Characthorse certainly contains oblique references to particular events in his biography that could be extrapolated from the show, if one wished to do so.
With its bum-shuffling dances, singalong moments and casual near-nudity, Characthorse reminded of the emphatic performances that pre-school children put on for their parents. It elicited a powerful feeling, to be reminded of that time in my own life and to see my own childhood experience reflected in his; this is not what you expect to feel at a comedy show. At moments I felt a kinship with the performer; and for such a personal show this is nothing less than a triumph. The theatrical influence—by which I mean his active experimentation with the form of non-apologetic audience immersion more normally associated with theatre—has certainly ripened Hoult’s goals as a comedian. Although I’m glad he cut a section of the show which spoke of ‘faith in the imagination’, there’s no doubt in my mind that this faith has taken him, and his audiences, to a pretty unique place.
It could also take him just a little further. I got the sense, at points, that the chaotic elements of the childhood imagination that Characthorse engages with were over-choreographed. Subconsciously, I wonder if Hoult feels the same. During our conversation he mentions his suspicions of ‘slickness’ as a critical criteria: ‘there is a feeling like, an obsession with slickness, and loads of people write about slickness [as if it’s a desirable quality for a show]. I’d prefer to see something that was a total shambles but original and funny.’ It is interesting how artists, speaking at the level of distance or remove required to comment on their own work, can somehow end up diagnosing their own problems.
Characthorse is a very, sometimes overly conscious first step towards something new for Hoult; Real Horror Show is a fascinating foil to it. Both are easily worth your money: watchable, fun, and intriguing.
Near the end of the interview we get talking about Colin’s Mum, who, along with his father and himself, forms the trifecta of individuals who constitute the core of Characthorse. He mentions one particular idea for a sketch that she had, which I’ll quote in full:
‘When I was doing stuff with my mates Fergus and Dave she said she had an idea for me. She said: “So you and Dave and Fergus are women and you’re wearing these skirts and dancing around the maypole. You take off the skirts and you’re men, and you dance around the maypole. You put them back on and you’re women and you dance around the maypole, then you stop. Fergus says, ‘Where have all the men gone?’ and you go ‘They have gone. They have been killed in the war. The Great War.’’And that’s the end. And you say: Mum, in what universe is that a sketch?’
Maybe not this universe. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that his mum has something of the maverick comedy genius about her too.