The wheels threaten to come off a few minutes in, by the ten minute mark they’ve made good on that threat, and by the half-way point Characthorse has careered off the road entirely. But it doesn’t matter. Where Hoult’s going, you don’t need roads. The certifiably fruit-loop master of character comedy has unleashed an epic adventure of batshit proportions. The story of a young Colin’s adventure through the fantastical underbelly of his native Nottingham, Characthorse is like a crowded prog-metal gatefold, a yarn that’s spun so fast it threatens to helicopter out of the venue. In a way it’s the perfect vehicle for Hoult’s quick-fire grotesques, but only if you imagine said vehicle as a gonzo-merz-tank from the outer reaches of space.
Because reasons, young Colin must undertake a daring quest to seek the mythical Characthorse, slipping through a hole in his bedroom wall like that kid in Time Bandits into the dangerous parallel universe of Snottingham. He meets a black-bearded mystic in a magical bazaar, a bevy of pole-dancing Autobots and a hit-man with the world’s slowest shuffle. The characters flash past in a blur of gurns and non-sequiturs, Hoult displaying his talent for rendering improbable creations instantly recognisable. For such a dedicated surrealist, and there are passages here that are so off the wall they’re on the opposite wall, Hoult always leaves a skein of shrewd observational humour to guide his audience back to reality.
Though the big splashy space ducks and inexplicable Patrick Stewart interludes grab the attention, it’s actually the sweet, nostalgic story that underpins them that stays with you. At its heart, Characthorse is a story about childhood and home, about readdressing childish fears and realising that the mean forbidden streets of your home-town aren’t actually teeming with murderous beasts. The performance is flecked with quiet details that reveal the heartfelt structure that Hoult has daubed his Day-Glo fantasy on top of.
In a way the titular Characthorse is the least important element. It feels more like an insane and broken pun that’s been let loose in a (relatively) subtler play, through its presence neatly links the story to his eventual fate as a sort of modern-day Lon Chaney Jr. What Hoult is really seeking is a sense of closure, perhaps even of reconciling his current position as famed TV actor and story-teller with the fortunes and ambitions of his family and peers. It’s a far more serious show than Hoult’s relentless silliness would suggest. There’s more than a little Spike Milligan about him, a darkness and a sharpness that keeps his inventions from collapsing into aimless whimsy.
Moments of audience interaction are brilliantly handled and often energetically physical, with Hoult dragging the front row into his sweaty mayhem. He’s a brilliant performer, and his exuberance easily paper over the occasional overrunning gag or opaque bit of plotting. It’s not like Hoult’s going to give you time to notice. Characthorse is a tremendous piece of one-man lunacy. It’s a bittersweet story about growing up by a man who evidently, brilliantly, hasn’t.