There’s always been a bit of cult mentality surrounding Alan Partridge. Much like Monty Python before it, Steve Coogan’s comic creation is stalked by a parade of his own greatest hits, from deliberately cringe-inducing catchphrases (“Aha!”, “smell my cheese”, etc) to recurring bugbears or specific pop cultural neuroses. OK, “cult” is probably too strong of a word, but it’s fair to say that Alan Partridge: Stratagem arrived to find the O2 London a cathedral of the converted.
In Stratagem, Coogan deploys his obnoxious alter ego as some kind of motivational speaker – though this premise is only attacked with the woolliest sense of conviction. He walks out on stage to a re-lyricked version of “We Built This City” by Starship; this then segues into a mercifully brief Hamilton riff. From there, he embarks on a number of comic skits, sometimes involving video projections, sometimes involving on-stage guest stars.
One skit sees Alan travel back and forward in time through the “magic of theatre”, interacting with past and future versions of himself. Another sees him snoop on his assistant, Lynn (Felicity Montagu), who appeared via pre-recorded video, prompting whooping from the audience. And there are several more musical numbers, the last few of which seem entirely laugh-free.
Partridge is inherently a low-rent, low-status character who thrives most in the glamourless intimacy of a North Norfolk radio booth (on Sky series Mid-Morning Matters) or in the small-town surroundings of I’m Alan Partridge. It was always going to be a struggle adapting the character for such a large stage – though Coogan has done similar before, when he included the character in his 2008 stage show Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters.
There is maybe 45 minutes of enjoyable material in Stratagem – enough to bulk out for an Edinburgh show but nowhere near enough for a two-act arena gig. As the show goes on, the jokes seem increasingly obvious – weak digs at British media personalities; lazy, innocuous swipes at the royal family. One gag about the GoCompare advert feels nearly as old as Partridge himself.
But again, maybe this is the format working against the material; plenty of similar jokes in Mid Morning Matters land perfectly well. Perhaps it has to do with the illusion of spontaneity. Here, with Alan surrounded by dancers and in front of 20,000 people, there is none whatsoever. The audience is generally subdued towards the end of the show; some jokes completely fail to provoke a reaction. There are whole skits that become excruciating to watch.
In his many TV ventures, you can’t help but pity Partridge, a character who, through his own hubris and ineptitude, is always the butt of the joke. Watching the character strut and sing before a stadium of cheering fans, you suspect the joke may have been lost in translation.