Deputy Editor Jasmine Sandar reviews Alan Partridge’s Stratagem Tour, praising the transition of the TV character to the stage
Regarded as ‘one of the greatest and most beloved comic creations of the last few decades’, Alan Partridge has become somewhat of a national treasure, and rightly so. His combination of blunt bigotry, a complete lack of self-awareness and pompous egoism cannot help but directly appeal to the cynical satire that underpins the British sense of humour. Indeed, there was evidence enough of this given that the guffaws of thousands of white, middle-class, 40-60-year-old audience members ricocheted across the entire span of Birmingham’s Utilita Arena for the duration of his live performance of Stratagem.
For those of you wondering what Stratagem actually is, keep on wondering. Partridge’s two-hour presentation begins with the promise of some valuable advice on how to turn one’s life around after the onslaught of the pandemic and ends with a parody tribute to a medley of 80s love ballads. In between this is pure and utter chaos with a series of disjointed scenes barely stitched together by the thinnest thread possible, including but not limited to a Hamilton-inspired rap, the employment of ‘theatre’ to travel with a time machine and an exposing encounter with a drunken millennial from the crowd (played by the extremely talented Emma Sidi). There were also some entertaining pre-recorded run-ins with CCTV footage of the beloved Lynn (Felicity Montagu), home sitting for Partridge in her stock role as the beleaguered personal assistant, and a glitchy Zoom call with Steve Coogan’s Irish double Martin Brennan who rather predictably burst out into a rebel song. Whilst the array of characters was impressive and the timings between the online and in-person interactions were executed impeccably, the whole thing put together fell flat of the flashy finale that was expected.
Whilst the majority of the sketches failed to sustain a healthy level of comedy for their full length, undeniably there were cracking moments of hilarity at almost every corner. For example, it is difficult not to giggle at a grown man in a white suit sliding down a bannister backwards or unexpectedly erupting from a leather chair in a transformer-inspired suit. In fact, it is precisely Coogan’s physical comedy that makes Partridge so real. Whether it was the smaller details of the way he contorted his face into various exaggerated expressions or the more noticeable movements across the stage when he was trying to steal the spotlight from a successful graduate of Stratagem, Coogan never broke character. In the same way that Coogan has transported from television to the stage, Partridge has moved from fiction to actuality. Although, it could easily be argued that this was never truly too much of a challenge anyway, given that Coogan himself has recently described Partridge as a fusion of Richard Madeley with Piers Morgan.
However, it is difficult to say whether Partridge should have been brought to the stage. The majority of the time, he was on his own talking to a huge cinematic screen and it begged the question: does his outspokenness translate as well when he has nobody to riff off? Arguably, Partridge’s funniest trait is his oblivion in front of others and the forthrightness he maintains when it comes to pushing forward his opinions over anybody else’s, but that requires a foil other than himself. We did see a glimpse of this during my personal favourite segment of the evening, which was the meditation scene he did alongside Sidi, where the pair bickered through gritted teeth whilst trying to keep an outwardly zen composure.
Another aspect of the performance that I was very impressed with was the general staging. The cameramen did an excellent job of filming all the perfect angles for the big screens that people at the very back of the arena had to use (not us, fortunately!); the lighting was spot-on and was even part of one of the gags with one flash meaning ‘yes’ and two flashes ‘no’; and jaws dropped when one of the women from Partridge’s entourage of back dancers was left dangling from the air on a bungee rope. It was these very tangible parts of the show that spoke to the benefits of seeing Partridge live rather than just digitally.
Was it the best comedy I have ever seen? No. But was it Partridge to the core? Yes. And really, given his legendary status, that is the only thing required for the show to work. Although, rather surprisingly, there were not many ‘a-has’ that night, there were plenty of ‘hahas’, and perhaps that is what Stratagem was all about – making people laugh after a couple of years of covid misery.