Going into Alan Partridge’s new live show, I knew I could not review this with the critical eye of a seasoned theatre reviewer. An absolute Partridge super fan (with an impression to match), I knew that whatever spewed out of Norwich’s greatest DJ’s mouth was going to make me laugh.
However, as was painfully obvious sitting in the Manchester Arena on a warm Saturday evening, no one other than the super fans really take much interest in Partridge anymore. If you’re reading this then, I must assume you know the man, the myth, the legend. As such, please forgive the biases of this piece.
Here we go then.
It must be recognised that the Partridge delivering this new live show, Stratagem, is a different incarnation to the Alan of Knowing Me Knowing You or I’m Alan Partridge. No longer the exciting, young BBC talk show maverick nor the disenfranchised Disk Jockey living out of a travel tavern, Alan has moved with the times. Chat show success and a BBC pay cheque to rival gardening legend Monty Don has spurred his desire to be revered and now, his incessant desire to appear ‘woke’. More than anything in the show, it’s this wokeness which is pressed upon audiences.
And for the most part, it works. Imparting wisdom, conducting interviews teaching how to better yourself, and offering another insight into the turbulent life of TV’s most iconic presenter are the focuses of the show. Various dance routines and a second act that overshadows the first were undeniably a strong basis.
Moments where he just misses the PC mark never quite appears as ‘hip’ as he thinks he is and manages to offend ‘the left’ with his mistimed and inappropriate remarks are by far the best moments of his theatrical return and capture the essence of Alan’s comedic appeal. Always in fear of being upstaged and jumping onboard Black Lives Matter rhetoric by mimicking cultural staple Hamilton to appear diverse combine with constant call backs to bygone characters in the Partridge saga. For fans who have meticulously dedicated themselves to the two decades worth of material, this is a must.
Lynn Benfield, Alan’s much beleaguered personal assistant, makes a stirring return if only through a pre-recorded ‘live video’ of her pottering around the Partridge household. The perfect foil to Partridge’s bombast, even this meek, middle-aged secretary has evolved over the years, now just as vindictive as her boss and clearly gunning for a pay raise from her meagre £12,000 salary. Who would’ve thought a woman resembling, in Alan’s words, a “brown cloud” could elicit such adoration from fans?
A tribute to the recent passing of Seldom, Partridge’s loyal mastiff, also touched the hearts of everyone during the interval break. Not a dry eye in the whole arena, I’m sure.
Alan now clearly recognises his rather exclusive appeal. Joyfully pointing out a member of the audience who isn’t White, middle-aged and male, he’s clearly riding high on self-awareness and success. The usual angst of the character is somewhat replaced by the motivational speaker facade he dons throughout whilst maintaining the sense that Alan believes he really is helping to change the world.
However, the halfway point of the show threw up some real questions. Speaking to some men in the toilet (where else would you talk to strange men?), it was clear not everyone was happy. The resounding sense was that Coogan has sold out.
In trying to appear woke and aware, the Alan persona often slips and Coogan’s own left-wing leanings suddenly come to the fore. Jabs at the Tory government, Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson seem out of character for Alan, whose own conservative biases and excruciating unawareness constitute half the hilarity of this beloved presenter.
Moments of the performance therefore felt all too easy and poorly thought out. Perhaps this was Coogan simply going through the motions and picking up his pay cheque at the end of the day.
Even skits that tried to do something new with the live form, satirising the theatre format – “let’s imagine we’re travelling back to the 60s” – felt forced and uninspired. The self-consciousness Partridge exhibits on TV coupled with the lack of self-awareness, the sense that if he doesn’t impress NOW he’s lost his chance of fame forever, is wholly lost in a staged production in which Alan is actually too self-assured.
Central to this is that Coogan, along with Partridge’s success, means he knows he will always have a small but loyal collective of fans. As such, it never feels like either are really fighting for something. The show doesn’t seem to fit the Partridge trajectory we’ve all known. He has nothing to prove, nowhere to go. Therefore, his bumbling idiocy falls flat. When there is nothing at stake, who really cares? And a moment of ‘romance’ towards the end seemed woefully shoe-horned in.
Truthfully, seeing Alan in control is not all that funny.
This is surely a problem that stems from the live aspect of the show. Whereas the sitcom format of previous Partridge shows allows Coogan to continue through his mishaps and build longer, more developed comedic situations, the ‘theatre’ format requires quicker gags, necessary gaps for audience laughter and the need to make the staged appear spontaneous. His TV incarnation can dominate the world he’s in whilst this staged version must share his space with an audience. In doing so, Coogan sacrifices that which makes Partridge so funny.
So don’t get me wrong, Stratagem with Alan Partridge is a lot of fun. An iconic soundbite here and there and the odd call back constitute some of his best moments. Clever uses of screens to interact with elements outside of the stage are hit or miss, but when they do hit, are supremely funny.
However, it’s hard to see where the character goes from here. Disappointing stakes, inconsistencies in the ‘live’ character and the lingering sense that Coogan wants to get on and off that stage as quickly as possible are to the shows detriment.
A final tour de force of Partridge genius? Unfortunately, not. An entertaining ode to the fans as Steve Coogan ekes every last penny out of his greatest creation? I reckon so.